The nature of the Senate would be challenged right away, and in several tangible ways, with the election of Roy Moore.
Even though Congress is now defined by its tribal partisanship, which long ago gave the lie to whatever senatorial claim remained to being “the world’s greatest deliberative body,” Tuesday’s special election in Alabama threatens to make life in the northern half of Capitol Hill an even more unpleasant experience. Traditions and courtesies that have applied a bit of congenial gloss to the coarseness of the place would soon enough become endangered by Moore’s very presence.
Who would escort him into the well of the Senate to take the oath of office? Custom holds it should be the state’s other senator, especially since he’s from the same party. But over the weekend Richard C. Shelby made a declaration almost unheard of in modern congressional politics: He said he wrote in a Republican (whom he declined to name) instead of casting his absentee ballot for the party’s nominee.
“I think, so many accusations, so many cuts, so many drip, drip, drip — when it got to the 14-year-old’s story, that was enough for me. I said I can’t vote for Roy Moore,” Shelby told CNN. “The state of Alabama deserves better. I think we have got a lot of great Republicans that could have won and carried the state beautifully and served in the Senate honorably.”
Watch: In Alabama Race, Jones Has Funding, Moore Has Trump, Bannon Support
That stunning rebuke underscored how Shelby, a senator for 31 years and currently sixth in overall seniority, would begin a compulsory relationship with Moore on such frosty footing that ceremonial chaperone services might not be appropriate.
What Shelby is referring to, of course, are the allegations made by at least eight Alabama women who say Moore pursued relationships with them as teenagers, with five of them alleging sexual abuse or assault. He denies all of their accusations.
That Congress might be on the verge of welcoming its first senator who’s allegedly preyed on children has prompted two venerable and rarely-in-the-headlines Senate institutions to get ready for time in the spotlight.
Thirty high school juniors and seniors are due to arrive in Washington in January to spend a semester as pages, perpetuating a tradition that dates to before the Civil War. Democratic Rep. Gwen Moore of Wisconsin on Monday sounded the alarm about their safety if Roy Moore wins, publicizing a letter to the Senate sergeant-at-arms demanding to know “what preventative steps are being taken to safeguard Senate pages from predatory conduct of U.S. senators and Senate staff.”
“The nature of life on Capitol Hill necessitates long hours in close proximity to lawmakers and staff that can create power dynamics of which young people are not fully aware,” she added, noting how the sexually suggestive texts sent to House pages by GOP Rep. Mark Foley of Florida helped doom the page program on that side of the Capitol a decade ago. “It would be unconscionable for Congress not to be vigilant and proactive in taking precautions to safeguard these children given the well-sourced allegations against Moore.”
The letter, from a House backbencher without standing to shape Senate policies, will easily be dismissed by GOP leaders as a publicity stunt with the blue-jacketed errand runners deployed as props.
But if the parents of just one incoming page go public with similar apprehensions — or if any senators, Democrats most likely, rescind their page appointments and declare concern about Moore’s proclivities as the rationale — Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will be hard-pressed to avoid discussions about the efficacy of the program, which aims to give promising teenagers a bird’s-eye view of history that inspires them to lead lives of public service.
“Whoever fills the seat from Alabama should be able to look at the pages and see hope and innocence. But Moore does not appear to see children that way,” Madison Haddix, a page from Tennessee earlier this year, wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post on Sunday. “How can Moore be expected to make decisions with the interests of children at heart when he stands accused of betraying children? How can he learn from pages, and how can pages learn from him, when he is accused of viewing girls our age through such a twisted lens?”
Even if the page program does not create a flash point, Moore’s purported past would create precedent-bending headlines for another bedrock Senate establishment.
In the half-century since the predecessor to the current Ethics Committee was established, there has been no publicly reported instance of any panel investigation of behavior by a senator three or more decades before his initial arrival at the Capitol. But that is what the six-member committee — the only one with the same number of Republicans as Democrats — would be undertaking upon a victory by Moore, who will turn 71 in February, because his alleged abuses date to his time as a local assistant district attorney when he was in his 30s.
The GOP leadership, clearly worried about the political fallout from allowing Alabama’s voters to have the definitive word on Moore for three long years, has committed to having Ethics deviate from its longstanding practice of looking only at senators’ behavior in office or as candidates.
The allegedly lecherous aspects of Moore’s past have dominated this fall’s campaign, of course, but they are by no means the limit of what would make him an uncomfortable standard-breaker to his colleagues.
His passionate evangelical Christian rhetoric, and his calls for a more direct role for Christianity in American society and government, are the essence of his political identity and would surely make for awkward moments with the vast majority of senators — no more so than the seven Jews among them — who espouse secularity in public life.
His declaration, as recently as two years ago, that “homosexuality should be illegal” would set him apart from virtually everyone else in the Senate — and will prove especially challenging if he ever decides he needs to have a collegially professional encounter with Democrat Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, the nation’s first openly gay senator.
Finally, he would have trouble securing much respect, or maybe even just a seat, on a top-tier committee given how he’s been ousted two times as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court — in 2003 for refusing to obey a federal court ordering that he remove a Ten Commandments monument from his courthouse, and in 2016 for his open defiance of the Supreme Court ruling the previous year establishing a right to same-sex marriage.
Although committee assignments are mostly governed by seniority, meaning the Alabama winner could expect mainly leftovers until the next election, such panel postings are formalized through what’s normally a pro forma Senate resolution — affording Moore’s critics a chance to in effect filibuster his arrival, assuming they want to wage their own sort of holy war against him from the very start.
Might they argue that their new colleague’s vow to “support and defend the Constitution” is patently suspect in light of his record of flouting settled constitutional law while acting as the highest judicial officer in his state?
And what if Doug Jones, the former U.S. attorney in Alabama, becomes the state’s first Democrat in the Senate since the late Howell Heflin two decades ago? It will rank among the biggest upsets in recent congressional elections — but his presence won’t prove upsetting at all to the congressional culture.