×

A huge wave of sexual harassment claims is about to hit Congress—hard

  • The political punditry is already in full prediction and analysis mode for the 2018 midterm elections.
  • But those predictions foolishly overlook how the sexual harassment wave could affect Congress.
  • That's especially true in the Senate, where any one member forced to resign could tip the balance of power in an instant.
The United States Congress is poised to pass huge tax cuts in both the House and Senate December 19, 2017 in Washington, DC.
Getty Images

The 2018 midterm elections are already shaping up to be a high stakes battle with control of Congress hanging in the balance.

Not surprisingly, the end-of-the-year political news coverage has been dominated by midterm election predictions. They usually point to the abundance of surveys showing Democrats with a big lead in generic congressional polls. Other pundits predict the public's response to the GOP tax reform law will play a key role in the November results.

But leave it to those pundits to miss what could be the top "x-factor" in the midterms: sexual harassment. Sexual misconduct has already been dubbed the top story for 2017: Complaints against the Department of Justice's handling of many sexual harassment cases is just the latest scandal to arise.

To be sure, the full sexual harassment scandal wave on Congress has only just begun. The first shoe dropped when accusations against Rep. John Conyers came to light in November. The congressman, who was the longest serving member in the house, resigned in early December. Misconduct allegations against Senator Al Franken soon followed and led to his resignation as well.

But the Conyers case revealed a potential mine field: the existence of 264 sealed cases of sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, and other violations of the so-called "Congressional Accountability Act" that have been settled with $17 million of taxpayer-funded money just since 1997. They include (but are not limited to) cases where House members, senators, and staffers have all been accused of that kind of misconduct.

"Those 260-plus settlements yet to be unsealed hang like a sword of Damocles over all of Capitol Hill."

Potential cases could likely hit both the House and Senate throughout 2018. But it's the Senate where the impact is likely to be greatest, and the reason is simple math. The GOP majority in the Senate is already a dramatically low 51-49 margin post Doug Jones' victory in the Alabama special election. Just one lost seat either pulls the Senate into a tie or gives the Republicans some much needed breathing room.

Those 260-plus settlements yet to be unsealed hang like a sword of Damocles over all of Capitol Hill.

One of those cases did go public earlier in December, and it involved Republican Congressman Blake Farenthold. Farenthold has responded by saying he won't run for re-election in 2018, but the pressure for him to resign now is high. He won't be the last member of Congress to deal with pressure like that in the coming months.

Sources say that pressure is leading to a widespread fear factor on Capitol Hill. Dozens of staffers have told CNBC they're starting to make contingency plans in case their elected bosses get ensnared in the next sexual misconduct allegation to go public.

They have reason to be afraid, not least because these secret settlements have all been handled by the Congressional Office of Compliance, an entity Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier has accused of being an "enabler of sexual harassment." Speier and other members of both parties are currently trying to unseal the office's secret deals. That increases the odds that some or even most of these cases will become public.

So far, the focus on the effects of the harassment scandals has been squarely on House. But any member of the House or Senate serving for more than a year at any time since 1997 could be named in one of those 264 sealed settlements.

Here's where the math and the probabilities get really interesting: A whopping 31 members of the 100 member Senate have been serving in one part of Congress for every single year since 1997. Again, in a U.S. Senate almost evenly split down the middle, 31 senators is a lot of potential perpetrators.

The party breakdown among those 31 senators is 18 Republicans and 13 in the Democrat caucus. They include top leaders from both parties and key senators from swing states that could easily swing to the other party if the incumbent were forced to resign. Most importantly, 8 of them, six Democrats and two Republicans, are running for re-election in 2018. Three of those elections are currently in the "toss up" category according to the election site, 270towin.com.

It's important to pause here and make it clear that there is no solid evidence any of those 31 senators are involved in those sealed misconduct cases. But if they are, the swift and unforgiving nature of these scandals is abundantly clear from what happened to Conyers, Franken and others in just the last two months.

With that in mind, what's to stop a motivated and partisan staffer with access from leaking the name of a senator connected to one of these deals? People with access include staffers at the Office of Compliance and of course the people filing the complaints.

As we've learned in many other harassment cases, the list of people who know about alleged misconduct often turns out to be somewhat long. The pressure from Rep. Speier, Republican Congressman Ron DeSantis, and many journalists seeking the information is certainly making for a friendly environment for anyone to leak this info.

In other words, we may not have to wait for the elections to see major change in a relative blink of an eye. Attempts by either party to limit the potential carnage to Senate seats deemed "safe" by partisan standards don't look like they're strong enough to stem the #MeToo outrage at the moment. Plus, the GOP loss in deep red Alabama due to sexual misconduct allegations against Roy Moore proves that the idea of politically safe states doesn't mean much anymore.

The sexual harassment tsunami and the almost 50/50 split in our upper chamber of Congress make almost all 2018 election prognostications a fool's errand right now. It's best not to make grand predictions about the midterms before we come to terms with what could happen well before the polls open in November.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.