Lawmakers’ clear embarrassment over former Rep. David Wu’s (D-Ore.) surprise appearance on the House floor for President Obama’s jobs speech highlights the privileges former members enjoy after leaving Congress.
Wu, who gained notoriety last year for sending a picture to his staff of himself dressed in a tiger costume, resigned from his seat in July amid allegations that he sexually assaulted the daughter of a campaign donor.
But the disgraceful exit from Congress didn’t prevent Wu from showing up last week to sit with his colleagues during Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress.
Wu, who was accompanied by a young girl who appeared to be a relative, seemed delighted to be back in the chamber and took care to point out the sights to his guest.
His former Democratic colleagues, on the other hand, looked uncomfortable. They kept their distance, remaining several seats away from him in the minutes before the speech and seemingly trying to ignore him.
Wu’s appearance was highly unusual; most members of Congress who resign in disgrace do not show up for major addresses by the president.
At the same time, Wu was completely within his rights. And the perks of being a former member of Congress — even one who had endured public embarrassment and resigned under pressure — go beyond courtside tickets to presidential addresses.
Though not frequently used, the privileges could put congressional leaders in an awkward position as they attempt to explain to the public why their tarnished ex-colleagues are still roaming the halls on Capitol Hill.
For example, ex- Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) can still use the House gym and exercise facilities, where at least one of the revealing and sexually suggestive pictures he took of himself, which circulated on the Internet and led to his resignation, appeared to have been taken.
Former Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), who resigned earlier this year just weeks before a damning Senate Ethics report alleged that he had violated the upper chamber’s rules and federal lobbying laws, can still use the federal credit union and the members-only dining room.
Ex-lawmakers like former Rep. Chris Lee (R-N.Y.), who resigned after a Craigslist personal and photo of himself shirtless became public, retain space in the House parking lots and access to congressionally sensitive material from the Library of Congress.
Even being convicted and sentenced to jail doesn’t curb privileges, according to a source familiar with the detailed House rules.
Former Reps. James Traficant (D-Ohio) and William Jefferson (D-La.), who were sentenced to multiple years in prison for separate crimes they committed while in office, could attend a joint session of Congress if they wanted, the source said.
In fact, taking a job on K Street is one of the few ways former lawmakers can lose their privileges.
Lawmakers-turned-registered lobbyists may not use their perks, though lawmakers who work as advisers at law offices or lobbying firms who do not register to lobby do not lose theirs.
Having a direct interest in something moving on the House floor also means you can’t show up.
Lawmakers who have a “direct personal or pecuniary interest in any legislative measure pending before the House,” or are employed for the “purpose of influencing, directly or indirectly, the passage, defeat or amendment of any legislative proposal,” lose that privilege.
Member of Congress, perhaps mindful that they might need their congressional privileges after their days in Congress end, have made few attempts to bar or limit access to the chamber to serving or former members.
Those that have been made have been narrow in score.
One such attempt took place in 1997, when the House passed a resolution barring former Rep. Robert Dornan (R-Calif.) from accessing the chamber floor until a recount could be held in his race against Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.).
Dornan alleged that Sanchez, who is Latino, won the election’s narrow margin — fewer than 1,000 votes — due in large part to illegal residents casting ballots for her. Sanchez maintained the seat for a year as the election results were investigated, until she was eventually awarded the victory.
During that time, Rep. Robert MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezBiden, don't punish India Democrats reject hardball tactics against Senate parliamentarian Biden threatens more sanctions on Ethiopia, Eritrea over Tigray conflict MORE (D-N.J.), who now serves as a senator, successfully put forward the Dornan measure, saying that any member who is granted such access should assume “a concomitant responsibility to comport himself in a manner that properly dignifies the proceedings of the House.”