An old story looks likely to have a new life in 2018

An old story looks likely to have a new life in 2018
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In Washington, D.C., the new year commenced with bright sunshine, but partisans and pundits remain in the dark about the more than 260 sealed settlements that the Congress's Office of Compliance has negotiated over the past 20 years.

Although the more than $17 million total in settlements represent complaints for a variety of reasons, most people expect some will involve sexual harassment claims that will embroil more members of Congress in scandal.   

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Agitating further a midterm election cycle that already appears perilous for the Republican majority in the House, analysts believe this "settlement scandal" could dislodge more incumbents from their seats. Or as one columnist put it, the unsealed settlements "hang like a sword of Damocles over all of Capitol Hill."

 

But the facts surrounding these settlements may prove more stubborn than the perception, especially when one is looking at the House of Representatives.

Democrats need 24 seats to take the majority. But which members were engaged with what type of dispute remains a mystery. The settlement involving Rep. Blake FarentholdRandolph (Blake) Blake FarentholdThis week: Time running out for Congress to avoid shutdown Woman accuses New York state senator of sexual misconduct Republicans on the run: Retirements could be trouble for Trump and party MORE (R-Texas) is the exception. There's no certainty that most of the settlements will ensnare Republicans, even though there are more Republicans than Democrats in the House. In fact, since a larger percentage of the Democratic caucus has served more years, it is possible that more settlements will include Democrats.

Additionally, the impact of scandal on congressional incumbents is more complicated than it appears at first blush. Most members, on average, can expect to lose about 7 percentage points from their general election vote share, but few lose their seats. This is because most House members win reelection with margins far greater than 10 percentage points.

For example, in 2016, only 45 House members won a seat with less than 55 percent of the vote. Twenty-eight of those 45 were elected in the last two cycles (2014 and 2016), and it seems improbable that a representative who has served fewer than three years in office would have had an issue significant enough to have necessitated a negotiated settlement. In sum, it seems that whatever comes out about this list isn’t likely to hit electorally vulnerable incumbents very hard.

And frankly, this makes sense in that the members we would expect to engage in improper or illegal behavior are the ones who are full of hubris and believe they cannot lose. They push boundaries and misuse power because they believe they can get away with it. This is the common denominator across all industries and individual cases.  

Even though a scandal-tainted member is more likely to draw experienced challengers, as some of my research has shown, unless a serious challenger jumps into the primary election, it remains likely that the incumbent will be re-elected. Simply put, since the candidates running in a party primary tend to agree on most policy issues, voters can exact retribution against a tarnished incumbent and not lose either the seat to the opposition party or their policy representation in Congress. Ousting a "bad apple" has no real consequence.

But this isn't the case in the general election. The choice for a voter who is of the same party as the tarnished incumbent is one between supporting an unscrupulous member with whom one agrees or voting for a virtuous candidate with whom one disagrees. Either way, you lose something.

History shows that most of the time partisans would prefer to lose the moral high ground as opposed to their policy representation or their party's majority. And many congressional scandals involving allegations of sexual harassment, assault, or an extramarital affair ended with the tarnished incumbent re-elected to Congress.

That said, some scandals have ensnared enough members to upset the entire apple cart.

In 2006, Democrats managed to conflate several congressional scandals into one negative impression about the Republican majority's supposed "culture of corruption" in Washington. Arguing that voters needed to vote the bums out, Democrats won the majority in both chambers of Congress.   

Yet when one considers the individual races, 15 of the 18 scandal-plagued incumbents identified by the media prior to the election chose to run for reelection. Only one (Duke Cunningham) resigned because of his scandal (Katherine Harris ran for higher office and Jim Kolbe announced his retirement before any scandal was reported). Three other incumbents (Tom Delay, Robert Ney and Mark Foley) resigned after winning their respective primaries but before the general election. Nine of the 12 members who stood for reelection won with an average of 58 percent of the two-party vote share. In sum, 50 percent of the incumbents embroiled in scandals survived.

Still, it is fair to say that scandal mattered more during the 2006 midterm because it shaped the public's perception about the majority party in Congress and led to some unexpected resignations, than that it defeated any one individual incumbent. The years-long investigation into the Jack Abramoff scandal also likely helped Democrats recruit high-quality challengers. In essence, one scandal does not make a majority, but a large number of incumbent scandals can change the electoral environment (e.g., generic ballot) and the fundamentals (e.g., number of open seats the majority party needs to defend).   

The lesson from all of this is that while a congressional incumbent may survive a scandal, a party's brand grows more tarnished the more scandals it tolerates. In this sense, party leaders have been right to recently call for the resignations of congressional members who became embroiled in a scandal (i.e., Reps. Tim MurphyTim MurphyExpect a tight race in special election, but PA-18 remains solidly Republican Let's take step to improve the science of treating serious mental illness GOP groups mobilize in Pennsylvania ahead of special election MORE, Joe BartonJoe Linus BartonGOP leaders pitch children's health funding in plan to avert shutdown Week ahead: House GOP looks to revamp Energy Department Republicans on the run: Retirements could be trouble for Trump and party MORE, John ConyersJohn James ConyersWoman accuses New York state senator of sexual misconduct Dissatisfaction with position of women in US hits new high Republicans on the run: Retirements could be trouble for Trump and party MORE, Trent FranksHarold (Trent) Trent FranksThis week: Time running out for Congress to avoid shutdown Woman accuses New York state senator of sexual misconduct Womack wins initial support to become Budget chairman MORE and Farenthold). They are trying to save their parties from a damaged brand.  

The overriding question for the 2018 midterm remains, how many bad apples does it take to make a rotten barrel?  

Lara M. Brown is director of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University. Follow her on Twitter @LaraMBrownPhD.