If Rep. Weiner stays in Congress, will he become irrelevant?

Former members of Congress paint a grim picture of what could await Rep. Weiner if he doesn't resign, including shunning and loss of influence. Democrats are already edging away.

Richard Drew/AP
US Rep. Anthony Weiner addresses a news conference in New York, Monday. With the first call for him to step down from the Democrats, has Weiner become irrelevant?

After he made headlines for cavorting with stripper Fanne Foxe in late 1974, Rep. Wilbur Mills of Arkansas resigned his powerful position as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

The disgraced Democrat did not resign his seat, however, electing to complete his term. Instead, he sat next to the new committee chairman, Rep. Al Ullman of Oregon, “and did not say a word,” recalls retired Rep. Bill Frenzel (R) of Minnesota, a former member of the powerful tax-writing committee.

“He did not want to say anything. He just became irrelevant.”

Is that the fate of Rep. Anthony Weiner (D) from New York, now facing a congressional ethics investigation in the wake of his admission that he had sent lewd photos of himself to six women and then lied about it?

It might be. Congressman Weiner says he won’t resign, but according to former members of Congress and their staff, it becomes increasingly difficult for lawmakers to operate once they have a cloud over their heads. Other members shun them, embarrassed to be on the same podium with them. Few of their colleagues ask for their opinion or to cosponsor legislation. Other lawmakers return contributions from the PACs of the tarnished lawmakers as if the money were radioactive.

“Members don’t have a close relationship like they used to,” says Pete Davis, a former staff member on the Joint Committee on Taxation. “They are happy to pitch each other over the side if they get in trouble.” [Editor's note: The original version misidentified where Mr. Davis had been a staff member as the House Ways and Means Committee.]

For example, this February after Rep. Chris Lee (R) of New York, who was married, sent a bare-chested photo of himself to a woman he met on Craig’s List, he was pressured by his party to resign. In 2008, Rep. Vito Fossella (R) of New York, another married man, also was pressed by his party not to run for reelection after he got picked up for drunken driving en route to see his mistress, with whom he had a child out of wedlock.

First Democrat calls for him to resign

In Weiner’s case, Democratic Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid, asked on Tuesday what advice he would give Weiner if he heard from him, replied, “Call someone else.” And on Wednesday, Rep. Allyson Schwartz of Pennsylvania became Weiner’s first Democratic House colleague to demand that he resign.

Weiner’s future may ultimately be decided by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) of New York, his political mentor, say political observers. “That will drive the decisions,” agrees Mr. Frenzel, now a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

A spokesman for Senator Schumer did not return e-mails asking for comment.

In a NY1/Marist poll released Tuesday, 51 percent of New York City voters said Weiner should not resign, while 30 percent said he should. However, many residents within his own district said they could differentiate between his personal problems and his professional activities.

Weiner is up for reelection in 2012 with reports that some Democrats are already trying to line up someone to run against him in the primary. Republicans have called for his resignation. And Representative Schwartz, in her prepared statement said, “Having the respect of your constituents is fundamental for a Member of Congress. In light of Anthony Weiner's offensive behavior online, he should resign."

“I have to believe he is a liability going into the 2012 cycle, and both he and the party have to take that into account,” says Costas Panagopoulos, a professor of political science at Fordham University in New York.

If Weiner were to get reelected, he would not be the first Congress member to serve after a scandal. Last year, as reports of financial improprieties surfaced, Rep. Charles Rangel (D) of New York resigned as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. He was reelected and days later censured by the House.

However, “it’s pretty clear that Charlie has been pretty much neutered," says Frenzel. "He’s not a spokesman on taxes, his opinions are not solicited, and I would guess his life in Congress is substantially less rewarding than his earlier career.”

The Barney Frank model

Public rebuke does not necessarily end a politician’s career. In 1991, the House reprimanded Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts for bringing discredit on the House after it was found he had tried to fix some parking tickets for a man living in his house and had tried to influence the individual’s parole officer. Representative Frank not only survived the scandal but ultimately became chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, which rewrote the financial rules for the banking industry after the housing collapse.

“He was pretty upfront about it, didn’t try to hide anything,” says Mr. Davis, now owner of Davis Capital Investment Ideas. “His political effectiveness did not suffer from it.”

Sen. David Vitter (R) of Louisiana also survived a scandal after it was revealed his name showed up on the phone records of Deborah Jeane Palfrey, the so-called D.C. Madam, who ran an escort service with a number of high-profile clients.

He apologized and was reelected last November.

In Weiner’s case, he could yet be an effective legislator, says Mr. Panagopoulos. But the longer he remains in Congress, the greater the risk that the Republicans will turn him into a “poster child for scandalous behavior,” he adds.

The only way Weiner can end the drama, he says, is to resign.

“This story has so many legs, it’s not going away anytime soon,” Panagopoulos says.

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