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Only Congress Could Give Us a Matt Gaetz

Last week, Representative Matt Gaetz tweeted that if he were ever engulfed in scandal, he wanted it to be called “Gaetzgate.” (The Floridian was replying to a groaner of an Elon Musk pun that he seemed to have missed; that lack of perceptiveness was an omen.)

Gaetz got his wish quickly, and then some. First, there’s reportedly a federal criminal investigation into whether the 38-year-old Gaetz paid women for sex and whether he had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl. Second, Gaetz has alleged that he is the subject of an extortion attempt related to this investigation. Third, CNN reports that Gaetz showed House colleagues nude photos of his sexual conquests, sometimes even on the House floor.

If these scandals seem to demand an explanation for how a member of Congress, entrusted to hold power in Washington, could behave in such a way, the reality may be the opposite: Only a member of Congress could behave like this and get away with it. Whether Gaetz’s alleged behavior rose to the criminal is yet to be seen, but if true, it would have gotten him fired long ago in any conventional gig. Congress is no normal gig, though. It is, almost by design, a hostile workplace.

[David A. Graham: Congress is a hostile workplace]

Untangling the threads of this scandal takes some work, and Gaetz may have benefited (so far) from the Trumpian excess of it all: When so many bizarre fiascos are happening at once, it’s hard for anyone to grasp any of them. The first set of allegations remains murky. The FBI investigators reportedly hold lots of evidence, including text messages and receipts, but it’s one thing to demonstrate that Gaetz was promiscuous and another to prove that relationships between consenting adults actually broke the law.

(Gaetz denied the allegations in an extremely humanlike statement: “Matt Gaetz has never paid for sex. Matt Gaetz refutes all the disgusting allegations completely. Matt Gaetz has never ever been on any such websites whatsoever. Matt Gaetz cherishes the relationships in his past and looks forward to marrying the love of his life.”)

The alleged extortion plot is even weirder, involving an American who went missing in Iran in 2007, but at this point it appears to be a mostly separate matter.

The third set of claims, however, is both more straightforward and simpler to understand and believe. Per CNN:

Gaetz allegedly showed off to other lawmakers photos and videos of nude women he said he had slept with, the sources told CNN, including while on the House floor. The sources, including two people directly shown the material, said Gaetz displayed the images of women on his phone and talked about having sex with them. One of the videos showed a naked woman with a hula hoop, according to one source. “It was a point of pride,” one of the sources said of Gaetz.

Previously, while serving in the Florida House of Representatives, Gaetz was “part of a group of young male lawmakers who created a ‘game’ to score their female sexual conquests, which granted ‘points’ for various targets such as interns, staffers or other female colleagues in the state House,” according to ABC.

His behavior didn’t improve when he got to Washington in 2017. According to CNN, staff in then–House Speaker Paul Ryan’s office had “a discussion with Gaetz about acting professionally while in Congress.” Gaetz also screamed at then-Representative Cedric Richmond during a June 2020 hearing.

One might hope that “acting professionally” would be the bare minimum for a U.S. representative, especially one who had already served in a state legislature—and whose father was once president of the Florida Senate. But Congress has often been the site of abhorrent behavior, and state legislatures are even worse. Gaetz was a product of his milieu.

[Eliot A. Cohen: Honor and dishonor]

Congress has none of the measures in place that other workplaces do to deal with bad behavior. There’s no HR department, so when members misbehave, there’s no one to handle it. In theory, the House and Senate ethics committees can investigate and punish members, but in practice they are reluctant to punish their colleagues, and anyway, there are few real punishments short of expulsion. Nor are there bosses. The Ryan staff meeting may seem like a weak response, but the speaker has little real control, either. (Just ask Ryan’s predecessor, John Boehner.)

Supposedly, representatives answer to voters. That only sort of works. House members have to face voters just every two years, scandals don’t always filter down to home districts, and plenty of other factors are at play: Maybe representatives are in a safe district without much fear of a partisan challenge. Maybe they have a grip on the local party and can avoid a primary challenge. And maybe voters just don’t know. Gaetz’s colleagues seem to have been all too aware of his behavior, but there was no real forum for that information to get out.

Until now. The willingness of Hill sources to dish about Gaetz and the paucity of Republicans emerging to defend him both say something about how his colleagues viewed him. (Everything is “cancel culture” until your most obnoxious colleague gets in trouble. Then he’s simply being served his just deserts.) Still, actual accountability is a distant prospect. The biggest threat to Gaetz’s political career is likely the criminal investigation, but it could easily end with no charges.

Both Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, and Republican leader Kevin McCarthy have said that if the criminal allegations against Gaetz are true, he should be removed from the House Judiciary Committee, but this is almost laughable: If a House member committed a federal sex crime, one would hope that he’d face more than losing a committee seat.

Congress has traditionally handled cases such as this by shaming disgraced members into quitting, but Gaetz has learned the lessons of his mentor Donald Trump: Have no shame, and wear your disgrace as a badge of honor earned in partisan warfare. In most workplaces, that would be a quick way to get a pink slip. On Capitol Hill, it just might work.

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