Worse Than Weiner? Some Delinquent Lawmakers Kept Their Jobs

Some deliquent lawmakers have kept their jobs with few calls to step down.

June 17, 2011— -- Anthony Weiner screwed up. And he ultimately lost his job for it.

But there are some things the former New York congressman could have gotten away with, including driving under the influence and crashing into a capital office building barricade in the wee hours of the morning.

He also could have failed to pay his taxes, sought treatment for alcoholism, had a love child, married his lover, cheated with a staffer's wife, gotten caught by federal agents with hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribe money stuffed into his freezer or been found to frequent hookers.

Members of Congress guilty of those transgressions and other crimes have served out their terms, often with few, if any, calls that they resign.

Yet, Weiner taking a picture of his bulging underwear, posting it on the Internet, and later boldly lying about it, laid bare the wrath of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, congressional Democrats and official Washington like no other scandal in recent memory.

In all of her 20 years in Congress, Pelosi had never before publicly called on a fellow Democrat to resign until Weiner.

When Democratic Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana was indicted on 16 federal counts in 2007, neither then-Speaker Pelosi nor Majority Leader Steny Hoyer ever explicitly called on him to step down.

Jefferson, who denied wrongdoing, served out his term despite the swirling allegations and intensive ethics investigations, and was only later tried, found guilty and sentenced to prison.

Pelosi and other party leaders also avoided public calls for the resignation of Rep. Jim Traficant of Ohio before he was expelled from Congress in 2002 after a felony conviction, or of Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, who was found guilty of 11 violations of House ethics rules and formally censured late last year.

In 2006, after Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island smashed his Ford Mustang into a barrier near Capitol Hill under the influence of prescription drugs (police officers described him as "intoxicated") colleagues encouraged him to seek treatment -- not leave office for unbecoming behavior.

And few political historians could recall when a sitting U.S. president so directly suggested that a member of Congress -- much less one who had not been charged with a crime or violations of House ethics rules -- step down, as President Obama did regarding Weiner earlier this week.

"Usually, presidents stay out of this stuff because it's just tradition for Congress to decide its own matters," said Princeton University political historian Julian Zelizer. "I can't remember a comparable scandal when a president did that. It's a very easy thing not to say anything.

"The irony of the Weiner situation is that there have been scandals when the leadership has been much more quiet in both parties," he added.

The House Ethics Committee late last year found Rangel -- the former chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, which writes the nation's tax laws -- guilty of improper fundraising, inappropriate possession of multiple rent-controlled apartments and failure to pay taxes on a vacation home. But few leaders called on him to resign.

"He was censured of serious misconduct involving his office -- really serious things that had potential for criminal charges," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a left-leaning watchdog group. "We don't have anything remotely like that in the Weiner case."

Prominent Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who had also called on Weiner to resign, have declined to make similar pronouncements following alleged transgressions of their conservative peers.

Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, who admitted ties to the so-called D.C. Madam prostitution ring and later apologized, may have actually committed a crime of soliciting a prostitute. But he remains in office.

"I'm not relitigating the David Vitter situation," Republican National Committee chairman Reince Preibus told Fox News when asked if party leaders were being hypocritical.

During the months-long investigation into Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., and his alleged cover up of a sex scandal with the wife of his former top aide, there were similarly no prominent public calls for him to resign.

The Senate Ethics Committee concluded earlier this year that Ensign made false statements to the Federal Election Commission and violated campaign finance laws and referred the case to the Justice Department for possible criminal charges. Ensign abruptly resigned just before the findings were released.

"Congressional leaders traditionally, at least since the 1960s, have been more willing to deal with personal scandals than the kind of scandals that touch on the way Congress works," Zelizer said. "This was about him [Weiner], and pictures and Twitter, and there's kind of a safety in dealing with that issue. It's less comfortable to talk about interest groups and their contributions to Congress."

Sloan speculated that the treatment Weiner received may have stemmed from a precedent set by Boehner in two recent "personal scandal" cases involving Republican congressmen.

At the first sign of sexual misconduct, Boehner urged Reps. Mark Souder, R-Ind., and Chris Lee, R-N.Y., to resign, even though their behavior didn't appear to involve any abuse of their office or illegal behavior.

Souder, an eight-term congressman and staunch social conservative, admitted to an extra-marital affair with a staffer and abruptly resigned in May 2010. Lee quit his office in February shortly after a shirtless photo he texted to a woman on Craigslist surfaced on the Internet.

"This is a massive overreaction and I don't understand it," Sloan said of the pressure on Weiner in an interview earlier this week.

"I think there will be a public backlash when people start to think about what [Weiner] is really accused of doing. And is this the most serious thing a politician has done when most people are really concerned about politicians selling their office to special interests?" she asked. "There's no kind of that allegation here."