Congress has an 'et tu?' moment as it grapples with sexual harrassment
Legislators, spurred by cultural demands, take steps to deal with the 'pervasive' problem of sexual misconduct on Capitol Hill, including how to handle recently accused Senator Al Franken.
First it was the military. Then college campuses. Then the media and Hollywood. Now, it’s the US Capitol – where a wave of complaints about sexual abuse and harassment have flooded the stately halls and engulfed a sitting senator, Democrat Al Franken of Minnesota.
Women lawmakers and aides say inappropriate sexual behavior has long been “pervasive” on the Hill, largely kept in the shadows amid an insular, old-boys-club culture that persists to this day. But there’s a growing sense that that may be about to change.
“I was of a generation of survivors that never said a word,” Rep. Ann McLane Kuster (D) of New Hampshire told reporters after she and a bipartisan group of lawmakers on Thursday introduced legislation to make it easier to file sexual harassment complaints in Congress.
By not talking about their own experiences, Congresswoman Kuster said, she felt that she and others were “complicit” in today’s environment of “rampant sexual assault and harassment.”
Now, they are speaking up.
Since Rep. Jackie Speier (D) of California went public last month about being forcibly kissed by a chief of staff when she was a congressional aide in the 1970s, dozens of staffers – former and current – have contacted her office with similar stories.
Indeed, it was Congresswoman Speier’s account, as well as the scandal over Hollywood titan Harvey Weinstein, that compelled Los Angeles radio host Leeann Tweeden this week to publicly accuse Senator Franken of forcibly kissing her on a USO tour in 2006 and groping her on the plane home while she was asleep.
Ms. Tweeden’s account landed like a grenade in the Senate on Thursday, with Franken apologizing in two separate statements, and asking for an ethics investigation, which both the majority and minority leaders in the Senate have also called for.
Yet a week like this also raises all kinds of questions about how, exactly, Congress will proceed with this issue. Not all allegations are the same, and there are complicated matters of gradations of wrongdoing and gradations of punishment, as well as the relevance of past behavior before people entered Congress.
In Franken’s case, for example, the senator was not yet an officeholder when the events took place. He has admitted guilt and apologized, and Tweeden has accepted his apology. Eight former female staffers in Franken’s office issued a statement in his defense, saying he had treated them “with the utmost respect,” and adding: “He valued our work and our opinions and was a champion for women both in the legislation he supported and in promoting women to leadership roles in our offices.”
An Ethics Committee investigation may still be needed to determine whether other such incidents involving Franken have occurred – but in some ways, calls for an investigation have also allowed lawmakers to put off confronting even weightier issues, such as whether or not Franken ought to step down.
More broadly, it still remains to be seen whether – if the problem is as pervasive as appearances suggest – Congress is about to face a floodtide of official complaints, or if, in the end, most cases of harassment will remain unaddressed.
A 'tipping point'
In terms of public attention, the issue has clearly reached a “tipping point,” as Speier put it. In testimony on the Hill this week, Rep. Barbara Comstock (R) of Virginia told of a female aide who delivered documents to her boss’s residence and was greeted by the lawmaker wearing only a towel. He then exposed himself. The lawmaker is still in office, and the aide has quit.
CNN reported conversations with more than 50 lawmakers, staffers, and other political types – past and present – nearly all of whom personally experienced sexual harassment on the Hill or know someone who has. They spoke of an unofficial “creep list” of lawmakers to avoid and cautioned against getting trapped alone in elevators with certain members.
And of course, Republican lawmakers this week called for Alabama GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore to drop out of a Dec. 12 special election after several women told of sexual advances by Mr. Moore decades ago, when they were teenagers. Moore rejects the claims and is still in the race – despite facing a likely Senate ethics investigation and possible expulsion should he be elected.
So far, the House and Senate have acted unusually quickly, with the Senate last week passing a resolution for mandatory sexual harassment training and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin this week announcing a similar policy.
That’s a good first step, says Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) of New York, who is advocating for change, but she says more needs to be done to make it easier for victims to bring claims and not fear the consequences.
“Institutions protect the powerful, and this institution is no different,” she says.
Washington is in many ways a small town, and experience on the Hill is a critically important item on a resume – whether a person wants to work at a nonprofit, a lobbying firm, or another government job. A lot depends on Capitol connections, and many young people worry their career could be severely impacted if they spoke up about harassment. At best, their name would be forever Google-linked, at worst, they could be blacklisted.
An onerous process
At the same time, the current process for filing a sexual harassment complaint in Congress is onerous, say lawmakers such as Senator Gillibrand. Even before filing a formal complaint, a congressional aide has to go through a three-month process of mandatory counseling and mediation, including signing a nondisclosure agreement – after which they’re forbidden to discuss the case with anyone.
Backers of the “ME TOO Congress Act” hope to change that process. The bipartisan legislation, sponsored by Speier and Kuster, along with others, makes the mandatory counseling and mediation optional, sets up a counsel for the victim, relaxes the nondisclosure agreement, and in cases where settlements are reached, requires the name of the employing office and the amount of the award to be published by the congressional Office of Compliance, which handles complaints.
In the last two decades, the office has paid out $15 million in settlements involving 260 cases, but it does not name the employing office nor distinguish whether the cases are sexual harassment or discrimination, which are also included in the figures. The backers of the legislation hope it will increase transparency and accountability – indeed, under the bill, if a member of Congress settles a claim as a harasser, the member would be required to reimburse the Treasury for the amount.
Last year, Kuster spoke openly about being crudely assaulted and humiliated in college. Then, as a 23-year-old legislative aide in Washington, a distinguished guest of her boss slipped his hand under her skirt at a business lunch. But she said nothing about these incidents, thinking it was something that her generation of women just had to endure. She also assumed that things would change over time.
“I don’t think Jackie and I, when we worked on the Hill [as aides], ever thought that [in] 40 years... people would still be going through this.”