Storm of sexual harassment claims engulfs Capitol Hill

They’re all-consuming.

Certain scandals devour the news. Especially those that engulf Capitol Hill.

We’re practically at an epidermal-absorption level now when it comes to Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., and reports by female members and aides about sexual harassment in the halls of Congress. Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., informed me a current male House member “propositioned” her. As a result, Sanchez counsels junior, female lawmakers to avoid that person. Sanchez says she won’t take the elevator with that congressman now.

The House Ethics Committee says it’s “aware” of allegations about Conyers and whether he “used official resources” to fork over claims. As a result, the ethics panel is probing Conyers. Franken asked the Senate Ethics Committee to review his own conduct.

There are rumbles the levy is still yet to break on this story with reports of other claims and accusations. If that’s the case, there aren’t enough buses in Atlanta’s public transit fleet to pull up at just the right moment and give lawmakers a chance to hide. The Ice Bucket Challenge pales in comparison to the staying power of the #MeToo hashtag.

I told our editors that after the Franken story – and a separate, false ‘fake news’ accusation directed toward Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. – that I would only have to check out similar allegations another “533 times.”

And we haven’t even addressed Republican Alabama Senate nominee Roy Moore.

It should come as no surprise that Congress – and the American public – have found themselves at this nexus before: a series of news stories so explosive that they command the collective consciousness. A similar political nucleus arrived in the fall of 1991 – propelling the concept of “sexual harassment” into the political mainstream, and, frankly, changing the nation.

The Senate Judiciary Committee had already heard from then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas when allegations emerged that he may have sexually harassed law professor Anita Hill when he was her boss at … the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

FILE - In this June 21, 2017 file photo, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., listens at a committee hearing at the Capitol in Washington. Franken apologized Thursday after a Los Angeles radio anchor accused him of forcibly kissing her during a 2006 USO tour and of posing for a photo with his hands on her breasts as she slept.  (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Sen. Al Franken is facing calls for his resignation amid sexual misconduct claims.  (AP)

At the time, people weren’t even certain what constituted sexual harassment. There wasn’t even an agreed standard of how to pronounce it. Was it sexual huh-RASS-ment? Or, was it more clipped? Even “British?” Sexual HARE-uss-ment?  

Stunned, then-Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joe Biden, D-Del., re-opened the hearing. He summoned Hill to testify and recalled Thomas, along with a host of other witnesses.

“He spoke about … women having sex with animals and films showing group sex or rape scenes,” testified Hill. “One of the oddest episodes I remember was an occasion in which Thomas was drinking Coke in his office. He got up from the table [at] which we were working, went over to his desk to get the Coke, looked at the can and asked ‘Who has [put] pubic hair on my Coke?’”

An aide to Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, made a beeline to the District of Columbia public library to check out a copy of “The Exorcist.” A passage in the book detailed an “alien pubic hair” floating in a Collins glass filled with gin. Hatch then cited “The Exorcist” at the hearing, suggesting that Hill cribbed the reference from the demonic novel by William Peter Blatty.

The public was transfixed.

There was no Fox or MSNBC in those days. So the broadcast networks, plus CNN and PBS, went wall-to-wall with coverage. Commercial-free. Over the weekend, mind you. They brought in big-gun anchors like Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings to host. There was debate as to whether CBS would scrap a live telecast of the American League Championship Series between the Minnesota Twins and Toronto Blue Jays for the hearing should it stretch into the evening.

It was great theatre.

And then there was "Saturday Night Live" on NBC and its depiction of the hearings. Perhaps one of the five most-epic skits in the storied history of SNL.

Kevin Nealon as Biden. Dana Carvey as the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C. The late Phil Hartman as the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. The late Chris Farley as the late Sen. Howell Heflin, D-Ala. And – wait for it – Al Franken as the late Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill.

The cast characterized the senators as impressed at Clarence Thomas’s purported sexual prowess. They probed him for pointers as to how to improve their own sexual exploits with women.

“It’s been an education,” said Nealon playing Biden. When they called a porn star to testify in the sketch, Nealon declared “Frankly, we could just listen to you all day.”

The real Senate confirmed Thomas to the Supreme Court, 52-48. Two Republicans voted against Thomas. One of them was former Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore. A year later, Packwood found himself at the center of a scandal which also entranced the nation. Numerous women accused Packwood of sexual harassment going back decades. The Senate wrestled for days about the contents of Packwood’s meticulously detailed diaries. Finally, in 1995, the Senate Ethics Committee decided the entire Senate should expel the Oregon Republican due to his “habitual pattern of aggressive, blatantly sexual advances, mostly directed at his own staff or others whose livelihoods were connected in some way to his power and authority as a senator.”

Packwood resigned.

So, such salacious, tawdry tales have consumed Capitol Hill before. They’re consuming it again. Tax reform? Government shutdown? DACA? To the casual political observer, this is a lot more interesting.

Capitol Attitude is a weekly column written by members of the Fox News Capitol Hill team. Their articles take you inside the halls of Congress, and cover the spectrum of policy issues being introduced, debated and voted on there.