The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Scandal cost three congressmen their jobs this week. The last time something like this happened, it was over slavery.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) leaves the Capitol after announcing his resignation Thursday. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Here's one way to put this extraordinary week into perspective, after sexual misconduct allegations felled three members of Congress: To find a comparable moment of mass resignations, you'd have to go back to the Civil War.

In the months leading up to that conflict, Southern senators resigned en masse from the U.S. Senate over disputes about slavery. In January 1861, five senators in one day left their jobs as their states seceded from the Union. Senators from Northern states expelled an additional 10 Southern senators before they could resign.

“I think it's quite unprecedented,” said Brooklyn College historian and professor Robert David Johnson. “If you look over the history of the 20th century in Congress, there just is no comparable event.”

But of course, the Civil War resignations were highly political. So what about lawmakers resigning over scandal?

One of the nation's largest anti-corruption stings, known as Abscam, could be the closest comparison for the sheer number of lawmakers it took out.

An undercover investigation in the 1970s and '80s, with FBI agents posing as Arab sheikhs to catch congressmen taking bribes, ultimately put six House lawmakers and one U.S. senator in jail. (If this sounds like the plot of “American Hustle,” that's because it is.)

But those lawmakers didn't all resign in one month, let alone one week.

If anything, the Abscam scandal highlights just how unusual this week's resignations were from the normal pattern of scandal in Congress.

The three lawmakers who resigned in a span of three days — Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) on Tuesday, and on Thursday, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) — weren't facing criminal convictions.

They hadn't even undergone ethics investigations before they stepped down over multiple allegations of sexual misconduct or harassment.

That's because slowly, but also comparatively quite rapidly, Congress is realizing that a #MeToo nation wants its lawmakers to have — not just say they have — a zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment. This week, we saw the manifestation of that recognition: If you're a representative or senator with multiple allegations against you, you're too much of a political risk to keep.

Johnson says that's very different from the past when, even if congressional leaders wanted to oust scandal-ridden lawmakers, they didn't have the political backing to do so. In the Abscam scandal, former senator Harrison Williamson (D-N.J.) stayed on the job for months even after his conviction. Another congressman who was eventually convicted, Frank Thompson (D-N.J.), even ran for reelection under the cloud of Abscam. He lost.

“Part of what's being illustrated here is that it's difficult to find historical precedent because this particular congressional culture of dealing with scandals is so new,” Johnson said.

So, how much credit to Democrats get for pushing Al Franken out?

(Of course, a glaring exception to this new norm is Roy Moore. He could win an election to the Senate on Tuesday, even though he's been accused of making sexual advances toward teenagers as young as 14 when he was in his 30s. Senate Republicans tried and failed to get him to drop out. It's not clear that there's the political will in Congress to expel him if and when he gets to Washington.)

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As for another close historical comparison, Cornell Law professor Josh Chafetz recalled when the Bill Clinton impeachment took down two Republican speakers of the House.

Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) was kicked out by his party in 1998 after poorer-than-expected election results. 

Republicans elected Rep. Bob Livingston (La.) as his replacement. But on the day the House was voting to impeach Clinton — before Livingston was even sworn in as speaker — he abruptly resigned over an extramarital affair. “I believe I had it in me to do a fine job,” Livingston said. “But I cannot do that job or be the kind of leader that I would like to be under current circumstances.”

An extramarital affair is much different — and arguably much less serious — than men using their power for sex. But the difference in media coverage and congressional reaction between then and now over lawmakers losing their jobs over sex-related scandals is striking.

Even Democrats at the time defended Livingston. From Post coverage of that day:

In a year of bizarre political turmoil, the spectacle of a speaker-designate resigning on the same day the House voted to impeach the president over alleged lies in sworn testimony about sex with an intern left even the most seasoned veterans gaping and shaken.
“How many more good people are going to be destroyed by next Christmas?” asked Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), a friend of Livingston's, fighting back tears. “What are we going to do? Line them all up and mow them down?”

This time, Franken and Conyers didn't have any defenders and arguably wouldn't have even resigned if their leaders hadn't kicked them out. Same with Franks, who asked staffers if they would act as surrogate mothers.

That brings us to probably the most dramatic difference in all these moments: It wasn't FBI agents masquerading as sheikhs that brought down three powerful members of Congress. Nor was it an impeachment or war.

It was everyday women — an Army veteran, former congressional staffers, a radio host, an attendee of a state fair — speaking up about events they had long kept private, that ended these lawmakers' careers.

Such is the new, unprecedented and historic terrain we're in. And it's not clear that this moment of reckoning is anywhere close to being done.