Anthony Weiner scandal: Is anything in Congress private anymore?

Rep. Anthony Weiner finally acceded to demands that he resign because of his 'sexting' scandal. The incident further opens private lives in Congress to public scrutiny.

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    Rep. Anthony Weiner announces his resignation from Congress in the Brooklyn borough of New York Thursday. Weiner resigned amid intense controversy surrounding sexually explicit messages he sent online to several women.
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Had he not lied, Rep. Anthony Weiner (D) of New York might have survived the “sexting” scandal that ended Thursday with his resignation at a senior center in Brooklyn.

That’s the view of many of his former colleagues, speaking Thursday just off the House floor. “Had he come out straight forward in the very beginning, he would have seen less of, ‘You’ve got to go,’ ” says Rep. Bill Pascrell (D) of New Jersey. “We’re all human here.”

Still, the speed and intensity of Congressman Weiner’s fall raises new questions on the line between public and private behavior that some members and ethics watchdogs find troubling.

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“There’s now very little distinction between public and private life, and I think politicians should know that,” says Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

The Weiner case “sets a dangerous precedent,” she adds. “There are still members of Congress engaged in sexual improprieties. The second you’re involved in one, are you out?” she adds.

The message from the Weiner debacle appears to be that you resign if you create too many problems for your colleagues. “If something becomes a scandal, and leaders believe it’s a distraction from their message, that’s what’s going to get a call for a resignation."

After nearly three weeks of media frenzy, House Democratic leaders lost patience as the scandal drowned out their assault on the new GOP majority over jobs, the economy, and proposed cuts to Medicare.

Asked to distinguish between lies and sex scandals involving Weiner and former President Clinton, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D) of Florida, the new chair of the Democratic National Committee, said that Weiner should resign because his conduct “has distracted [from] his ability to do his job and distracted from almost all of our ability to do our jobs and make sure that we can effectively serve our constituents.”

Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, who called for Weiner’s resignation last week, had scheduled a caucus meeting on Thursday to strip the seven-term lawmaker of his committee assignments.

“Congressman Weiner exercised poor judgment in his actions and poor judgment in his reaction to the revelations. Today, he made the right judgment in resigning,” she said in a statement after the resignation.

In earlier eras, sex scandals on Capitol Hill were widely known in the Washington press corps, but rarely reported. Even if reported, they often had little consequence. In part, the heightened scrutiny of the private lives of public figures reflects a change in public standards. It also reflects more diversity among members of Congress and the press corps that covers them.

“The press corps was predominantly male until the 1980s, and men looked the other way,” says Gene Grabowski, senior vice president and manager of the Crisis and Litigation Practice Group for Levick Strategic Communications in Washington. “There was as much going on then, but now it’s found out.”

“The sensibilities have changed. More women are in positions of power and more women are in positions of influence in the press,” he adds.

There were 17 women House members when Ways and Means chairman Wilbur Mills and stripper Fanny Foxe made sensational headlines in 1974, but he was not pressed by his colleagues to resign. Today, there are 75 women in the House, 51 in the Democratic caucus, many in leadership positions, Congresswomen Pelosi and Wasserman Schultz among them.

Women in the Democratic caucus were among Weiner’s most outspoken, early critics. Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D) of Pennsylvania was the first to call for his resignation, citing his “offensive behavior online.”

On Thursday, Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D) of New York echoed the sentiment that Weiner made things worse for himself.

“If Anthony hadn’t lied in the beginning, it would have been OK,” she says. “The culture has changed because of a 24-hour news cycle. It makes everything here a little more sensitive and paints a bad picture of all of us.”

Beyond the TV news cycle, sex scandals over the Internet have an immediacy that creates new problems for politicians trying to escape them, says Mr. Grabowski, whose firm has represented members of Congress involved in sex scandals.

“The Internet has been a marvelous tool for messaging, but it’s a tool your adversaries can use against you,” he adds. “It can trip you up if what you think is private isn’t. Weiner used the Internet to great advantage for his political career, and it proved to be his undoing. You’re going to see more of that.”

“The whole thing is very sad. It’s a tragedy,” says Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D) of New York, speaking outside the House chamber as Weiner was resigning. As for lessons from the scandal for members of Congress, he said: “I hope they’re tweeting a little more carefully.”

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