Congress’ growing sexual harassment scandals
Rep. John Conyers refused to resign but stepped down as the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee this week as pressure increased on lawmakers to reform the secretive way Congress handles sexual harassment accusations. The Michigan representative, who has been accused of sexual misconduct by at least four women, allegedly paid $27,000 to settle claims with one of his accusers out of his congressional office’s funds. He denies any wrongdoing. Since 1997, Congress has paid out $17.2 million in 264 confidential settlements from a separate congressional fund. “It was a system set up in 1995 to protect the harasser,” said Rep. Jackie Speier (DCalif.), who’s proposing legislation to end secret settlements.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was criticized harshly for appearing to defend Conyers on Meet the Press, saying he was a civil rights “icon” who deserved “due process.” Pelosi later said she had talked to and believed one of Conyers accusers; behind closed doors, she’s said to be leaning on the 88-year-old to resign. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) returned to the Senate this week in the wake of accusations that he forcibly kissed a woman and groped several others. Franken said he would cooperate with an Ethics Committee investigation. “I’ve let a lot of people down,” Franken said, “I’m hoping I can make it up to them and gradually regain their trust.”
What the columnists said
It’s time for Congress to end “the era of the skirt chasers and touchy hands,” said Julian Zelizer in TheAtlantic.com. That starts with reforming Capitol Hill’s absurd system for reporting sexual harassment, under which accusers must go through a 30-day “coolingoff” period before they’re allowed to file a formal complaint. Accusers who receive settlements are also required to sign nondisclosure agreements. “The existing system is a racket,” said Mike Allen in Axios.com. Members of Congress are effectively free to abuse their staff, knowing that “all of us taxpayers” will cough up the hush money.
Pelosi has failed a key test of this new era, said Erin Gloria Ryan in TheDailyBeast.com. Instead of handling the accusations against Conyers out in the open, she’s resorted to the proverbial smoke-filled room, hoping to avoid political embarrassment. But we know that dealing with “old problems in the same old way” just won’t cut it. Is anyone surprised by this? asked Jonah Goldberg in NationalReview.com. This partisan double standard is why so many conservatives don’t take Democrats seriously when they attack Republicans for sexual misconduct, even when they should. “If they won’t play by the rules,” they reason, “why should we?”
More congressional scandals are certain, said Jake Novak in CNBC.com. Harassment victims who’ve received settlements “will now feel emboldened to speak out,” regardless of nondisclosure agreements. Franken might give some disgraced politicos a road map for survival, said Edward Morrissey in TheWeek.com. Vaguely admit guilt and apologize profusely while claiming that you “recall events differently.” Then refuse to resign “and hope that the media gets tired of asking questions.” So far, the strategy seems to be working. ■