Scandal Threatens House But May Save the Senate

When the Terror War was over the horizon, Washington was possessed by the story of the President having sex with an intern. Now that the Terror War is five years old, Washington is possessed by the story of a Congressman trolling for sex with pages.

Former Representative Mark Foley (R.-Fla.) resigned his seat when evidence of his solicitations went public. He is not the only one on trial: When did the Republican leadership know of his misdeeds, and when did they do anything about it? Democrats hope the answer to these questions will tip the balance in the House.

As the Foley story exploded, I wondered what percentage of Congressmen engage in such activity, as compared to the great punching bags of the AOL start-up menu, teachers and priests. (Unlike Monica, Congressional pages are high-school kids and hence mostly below the age of consent; the first Foley story that broke had him approaching a 16-year-old.) The last page/sex scandal was in 1983—over 20 years ago. Yet there are only 435 members of the House at any one time, and attrition and turnover do not bring in fresh ones at a very great rate. Considering the thousands of teachers and priests in America, I would guess that Congressmen are at least as predatory, if not more so.

How do these things happen? Pages are, ex officio, ambitious and eager to please; being a page is a credit in the great résumé race. For all the sophistication of modern teenagers, they are necessarily unwise. In some of them, inexperience is imperfectly concealed by a layer of sexiness: The affair of Gerry Studds, one of the Congressmen censured in the last scandal, was described—by him, and by his page—as consensual. (Mr. Foley’s mark, by contrast, was grossed out by his approach, as I imagine most 16-year-olds would be. Sleep with someone with gray chest hair?)

These kids are thrown into a world in which their bosses are little gods. To Washingtonians, the emphasis is on little. Congressmen are a crowd, vaguely similar and faintly ludicrous, like extras in an opera. Senators, in their armor of ego and clout, are the true Olympians. Yet to ordinary mortals, Congressmen are godlike enough. They pass the laws. If you are a page, they are your bosses. The potential for mischief in that disparity is great.

Speaker Dennis Hastert’s description of what his office did when it first learned of Mr. Foley’s e-mails in the fall of 2005 goes like this: Mr. Foley was e-mailing the page of another Florida Congressman, Representative Rodney Alexander. Mr. Alexander complained to an assistant of Mr. Hastert’s, who told Mr. Hastert’s chief of staff. The chief of staff referred Mr. Alexander to the Clerk of the House, who oversees the page program. After some more back-and-forth (complicated by the fact that the page’s parents did not want anyone besides Mr. Alexander, their child’s boss, to see the e-mails), Mr. Foley was told to stop contacting the kid.

It sounds very by the book. The parents didn’t want their son tarred. No one wanted to rush to judgment. Even Congressmen are innocent until proven guilty. On the other hand, could you imagine Newt Gingrich or, on the Senate side, Lyndon Johnson, staffing out a potential scandal in this fashion? Isn’t the will to power of such figures greased by their intimate knowledge of the foibles of their colleagues? Don’t they all know, with Willie Stark, that man passes from the stink of the didy to the stench of the shroud, and knowing that, wouldn’t they keep tabs on every page-turner in their caucus, the better to use him, or to throw him to the wolves, as expedient?

The House leadership, which could not operate at that level of cunning, now stands accused of cunningly trying to cushion Mr. Foley, the better to save its partisan majority.

If the G.O.P. loses the House, it may retain the Senate, thanks to the political culture of the only place in America more corrupt than Congress: the State of New Jersey. If the Democrats are to retake the Senate, they need to pick up six seats, and this was looking doable, what with the Republicans wasted away again in Macacaville. But if the Democrats lose a seat they already hold, their task becomes Herculean.

Enter Senator Robert Menendez, locked in a tight race with challenger Thomas Kean Jr. Mr. Menendez is a Democrat and Mr. Kean a Republican. But in New Jersey, it is far more important to slot candidates into the great local parties: the immensely numerous crooks, and the puny band of non-crooks. The crooks are, basically, everybody. The non-crooks are a few Republican old-stock families, named Kean and Frelinghuysen, and a few Democratic gajillionaires (Lautenberg, Corzine) who are too rich to be bribed. Senator Menendez is looking like a member in good standing of the majority party. Last week, the Star-Ledger revealed that a lifelong friend of the Senator’s had urged a psychiatrist who works for the Hudson County hospital and jail to hire someone because “Menendez will consider that a favor.” At least the corrupt hire was not 16 years old. Will New Jersey voters accept this as business as usual, which, in their state, it patently is? Or will they sacrifice their solon to a passing spasm of righteousness?

Congress’ woes come at a time when Congress was actually showing signs of responsibility. The House bucked President Bush in refusing to pass yet another amnesty for illegal immigrants, voting to build 700 miles of fence along the southern border instead. This statesmanlike resolve forced the Senate to support a fence, too. Congress also passed new guidelines on prosecuting and detaining terrorists. The Bush administration had been trying to set policy by itself, on the theory that the president, as commander in chief, has authority over such matters. In Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld, the Supreme Court reminded the administration that it may have predominant, but not sole authority. Congress declares war; it must also step in to write laws when war-making ventures into uncharted territory. If only they could control themselves.