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Do members of Congress suffer the consequences of scandal?

Scandals in Congress are common. On average, at least one member of the House of Representatives is found every two months to be involved in a personal imbroglio or engaged in professional malfeasance like improper use of campaign funds or other financial corruption. Independent watchdog groups, political opponents, and the Office of Congressional Ethics all stand ready to publicize and respond to such events, and so the public is routinely made aware of members’ misbehavior.

It would be expected that these scandals lead to members of Congress resigning, choosing not to run in the upcoming election, or losing their next election. Indeed, research shows that scandals undermine members’ standing with the public and make it less likely that implicated members will return in the next Congress. While the effects may be partially dependent on the type of scandal and on the personal characteristics of the member caught up in it, there is little doubt that scandals have electoral consequences.

However, about two-thirds of the time, members of Congress withstand the electoral effects of scandal and return after the next election. As such, in every Congress there is likely to be at least a handful of members who go about their legislative work while operating in the shadow of a scandal. Yet by contrast to the well-established electoral effects of scandal, there is little prior research that explores how such events might interfere with a member’s pursuit of their goals beyond reelection.

In our recent article, “The Legislative Consequences of Congressional Scandal” (available online at Political Research Quarterly), Tracy Sulkin, Bill Bernhard, and I address this unanswered question by examining how scandals are related to members’ subsequent legislative activity. We collected an original dataset of congressional scandals in the House of Representatives from the 101st to the 112th Congress, identifying 253 member-term observations in which a member was identified by media coverage as being involved in a scandal. About 70 percent of these involve professional scandals, such as improper use of office resources, corruption, or sexual harassment, while the remaining 30 percent are personal improprieties like substance abuse and extramarital affairs.

The key aspect of our analysis is that, rather than look for electoral effects, we considered how these scandals may have had an impact on how members pursue their other objectives, such as advancing their bills towards becoming law, building relationships with their colleagues, and advancing to positions of power within the chamber. Generally, we expected that scandal would inhibit members’ abilities to reach these goals. Working under a cloud, we anticipated that members would be less likely to enjoy the strong support of their colleagues that is necessary to be legislatively productive and to enjoy the course of advancement that typically accompanies increasing seniority in the House. We did not expect to see overwhelmingly strong effects, as the most serious scandals are likely to be resolved with the member either resigning or losing in the next election. However, we expected a pattern to emerge, with scandal being associated with a stalling of a typical career trajectory.

Our basic approach was to compare members’ legislative effectiveness and institutional positions in the term following the scandal (t +1) and in the term prior to the scandal (t -1). To measure legislative effectiveness, we used Volden and Wiseman’s legislative effectiveness scores, and to capture members’ institutional positions, we considered their centrality in cosponsorship networks and whether they held positions in congressional leadership or had seats on exclusive committees.

Our results supported our expectations about the disruptive impact of scandals. Comparing the lead and lag scores of our outcome variables for member-term observations in which the representative was not affected by scandal and using simple paired t-tests, we found a consistent upward trajectory, with increases in effectiveness, network centrality, and occupancy of leadership and exclusive committee positions. No similarly robust pattern characterizes the careers of members when comparing these outcomes for terms before and after they were hit by a scandal. We view this as indicative of a tendency for members of Congress to, at least temporarily, shy away from supporting scandal-plagued colleagues and for members implicated in scandal to be forced to divert their resources away from legislative work.

We replicated this basic analysis using both matching and fixed-effects regression analysis, and the same general pattern of results emerged. Expanding the scope of the analysis to consider the longer-term consequences of scandal also supported our expectations, with indications that scandalous members still lag behind their more upright (or more discrete) colleagues even two terms following a scandal.

What do these results mean for how we think about Congress? On one hand, we do not want to overstate the importance of these findings for how the House of Representatives functions. While our analysis generates persuasive evidence that members suffer some consequence from their previous bad behavior, the impact is relatively diffuse. But even so, our findings align with the other research on scandals that points to their insidious effects. When members’ bad behavior is rooted out but they remain lodged in a seat, our research suggests that representatives face obstacles in working collaboratively in Congress. We surmise that this is likely to contribute to the trends towards declining trust in government and congressional incapacity. We hope that future research can continue to explore these effects, acknowledging the effects of scandal are unlikely to be confined to the ballot box.

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Topics: Representation & Leadership
Collin Paschall
I am a political scientist who studies American politics with a focus on political institutions. My dissertation explores the factors that are associa...