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U.S. Senator John Ensign, Author of Ensign Amendment, Falls From Grace

There is nothing like a good sex scandal to get things stirred up in Washington, and it’s even better when the scandal involves the likes of U.S. Senator John Ensign, a conservative Republican and member of the Pentecostal Church who for years has railed against pornography, promiscuity and other forms of “immorality.”

Ensign, in his second term as a Senator from Nevada, revealed on June 16, 2009 that he had had an 8-month extra-marital affair with Cynthia Hampton, a female campaign staffer married to Ensign’s former administrative assistant, Douglas Hampton.

Ensign claimed that his confession was prompted after Douglas Hampton tried to shake him down for hush money. However, it was later revealed that Ensign’s parents gave $96,000 to the Hamptons in April 2008, well before the scandal became known. It was further reported that Cynthia Hampton’s salary had doubled during the time of the affair, and that Ensign had helped her husband find lucrative consulting and lobbying jobs.

Senator Ensign was once a rising star in the Republican Party. Former chairman of the Republican National Senatorial Committee, he was promoted to head the Republican Policy Committee (RPC) in 2008, making him the fourth most powerful Republican in the Senate. Ensign was regarded as potential presidential material, at least until he admitted to having the affair. He resigned his leadership post with the RPC on June 17, 2009 but remains in office.

While scandal in Washington is nothing new, the Ensign affair highlights the hypocrisy of lawmakers who represent themselves as members of the so-called “moral majority.” Once given a 100 percent rating by the Christian Coalition, En-sign strongly supported the Federal Marriage Amendment to ban same-sex marriages; he proclaimed on the Senate floor that “marriage is the cornerstone on which our society was founded.” Strange, then, that he would break his own marriage vows by cheating on his wife.

Even after Ensign’s affair became public, he was not without his supporters. Senator Tom Coburn, Ensign’s room-mate in Washington, pleaded for forgiveness. “If you look at it in the light of everybody makes errors, at least he fessed up and resolved the problem with his family,” Coburn said. Calling Ensign a “bright young man,” Coburn noted that “lots of people make mistakes.” Coburn had reportedly known about Ensign’s extramarital affair for over a year, but kept quiet about it.

Senator Coburn’s defense of Ensign is not without its own irony. Coburn is considered by many to be one of the most conservative members of the Senate, having warned against “rampant” lesbianism in Oklahoma public schools. He also opposed condom use, claiming that condoms do not prevent STDs, and has spoken out against “promiscuous sex without consequences.”

While Senator Coburn came to Ensign’s defense, he has not always been so kind to other politicians. For example, Coburn was a strong critic of President Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and in 2007 he called for the resignation of fellow Senator Larry Craig. Craig had pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct for soliciting sex from an undercover police officer in a bathroom at a Minnesota airport (a plea he later tried to withdraw). Senator Ensign had been highly critical of Clinton’s affair with Lewinsky, too, calling for him to resign and saying Clinton had “no credibility left.”

In 1996, Ensign slipped an amendment into an appropriations bill that prohibited the Bureau of Prisons from using federal funds to distribute pornography to prisoners. This end-run around the First Amendment, dubbed the “Ensign Amendment” (28 U.S.C. § 530C(b)(6)), effectively barred all federal prisoners from receiving publications with sexually explicit content or nudity. [See: PLN, March 1997, p.11].

The Ensign Amendment, signed into law by President Clinton, was initially struck down by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia; however, it was upheld on appeal. [See: PLN, March 1998, p.10; Sept. 1999, p.17]. Other courts have questioned the soundness of the Ensign Amendment, but it remains in effect. See, e.g., Ramirez v. Pugh, 379 F.3d 122 (3d Cir. 2004), summary judgment granted to defendants following remand, Ramirez v. Pugh, 486 F.Supp.2d 421 (M.D. Pa. 2007) [PLN, May 2006, p.30].

More recently, in November 2008, Senator Ensign introduced a bill that would require a 50-hour work week for federal prisoners, with wage deductions of 65-75% for victim restitution and reimbursement of incarceration costs (S.3695). Thus far the bill has no other sponsors; it was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where it is going nowhere – much like Ensign’s political future.

Ensign is typical of many Christian conservatives. Unable to outlaw sexually explicit materials for all Americans they settle for banning it from prisoners and to their discredit, the courts have largely gone along with the charade. Thus an adulterer like Ensign is happy to legislate his public moral beliefs onto prisoners.

With hypocritical lawmakers like Senator Ensign in office, it is not surprising that a majority of Americans remain dis-gusted and dismayed by Washington politics and politicians. Then again, it is the American voters who elect them and re-elect them.

Sources:,,, Las Vegas Sun,, Associated Press

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