Democrats take a strong line on sexual misconduct in Congress

THE allegations of rampant sexual abuse that have been roiling Capitol Hill in recent days have started ending political careers. On December 5th John Conyers, an 88-year-old Democratic congressman from Michigan, announced, rather optimistically, that he was resigning “to preserve my legacy and good name”. The longest-serving member of the House of Representatives, Mr Conyers has been accused by numerous former female employees of molesting them; one of them had been bought-off with a payment of $27,000 from his office funds. Senator Al Franken of Minnesota (pictured), another Democrat, looked likely to follow him into enforced retirement from the Hill. At the time of writing, the former comedian was expected to announce his resignation at press conference on December 6th, having been accused by eight women of groping them. At least 30 Democratic senators had urged him to go.

Other alleged-sleazebag politicians are also facing disgrace. Blake Farenthold, a Republican member of the House from Texas, has been accused by his former communications director of making repeated and unwanted salacious comments to her. Ruben Kihuen, a Republican House member from Nevada has been accused of making unwanted sexual advances towards a member of his staff, too. Most of these allegations followed those concerning Roy Moore, the Republican Senate candidate in Alabama, who is accused of molesting or assaulting at least eight teenage girls, including a 14-year-old, when he was in his 30s. If Mr Moore is nonetheless elected to the Senate on December 12th, as is likely, Democrats, and perhaps some Republicans, will demand he be denied his place there. (Jeff Sessions, the attorney-general, has said there is “no reason to doubt” Mr Moore’s accusers; Donald Trump, who has himself been accused by a dozen women of sexual misconduct, has endorsed him).

Stories of powerful men abusing younger women surprise no one who has worked on Capitol Hill. Last year a poll of congressional staff by CQ Roll Call, a sister company of The Economist, suggested that sexual harassment was rife in Congress: four in 10 of the women who responded said they believed sexual harassment was a problem; one in six said they had been victims themselves. Jackie Speier, a Democratic representative from California, who has co-sponsored a bill to change the way Congress deals with harassment claims, recently described her own awful experience.

As a 20-something congressional aide, she recalled, a congressman’s chief of staff “held my face, kissed me, and stuck his tongue in my mouth”.  Years later, she said, she still recalled the “rush of humiliation and anger” she had felt. And such abuses continue, she said after she launched an anti-harassment campaign, #MeTooCongress. “From comments like, ‘Are you going to be a good girl?’ to harassers exposing their genitals, to victims having their private parts grabbed on the House floor, women and men have trusted me with their stories,” she claimed last month.

This is unsurprising; most of the circumstances that appear to encourage sexual abuse in the work-place are present on Capitol Hill. It is dominated by powerful men, especially in leadership positions. Only about one in five members of Congress are women. Its members also work long hours, supported by small teams of employees, most of them far junior to them. 

This situation is exacerbated by Congress’s woeful system for dealing with sexual harassment complaints. This entails a process that is protracted, secretive and chiefly uncomfortable for the person who has made a complaint. Under the 20-year-old Congressional Accountability Act, any person who says he or she has suffered sexual harassment must undergo a 60-day “counselling” and “mediation” process. They must then wait an additional 30 days before making a formal complaint.

During this process, says Debra Katz, a lawyer who specialises in sexual harassment and has represented a number of women who claim to have been harassed at the House, victims are not allowed to discuss their complaint with colleagues. “That makes victims feel extremely isolated and marginalised”, she says. At the beginning of the process, she tells her clients exactly what they can expect. “The majority decide they cannot go through with it”, she says, “which is heart-breaking”.

If a complaint goes ahead and is adjudged to warrant compensation in the form of a financial payout, the taxpayer foots the bill. Mr Farenthold’s accuser received $84,000. In an apparent effort to save his career, Mr Farenthold has said he will reimburse the tax-payer.

Adding insult to injury, the fact that Congress has this deeply flawed complaints system has been used as an excuse by some lawmakers to cling on to their jobs. While several prominent journalists have in recent weeks been suspended or fired after being accused of harassing junior colleagues, America’s lawmakers have been able to demand that the complaints process be allowed to wend its mazy way.

The bill introduced by Ms Speier, which is sponsored in the Senate by Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, another Democrat, would solve a lot of those problems. It would overhaul the complaints process, removing the 30-day waiting period, and make the process more transparent. It would also require members of Congress and their staff to take annual sexual harassment training and give victims greater support.

The Senate ethics committee is also likely to come under greater scrutiny. It is conducting an investigation into Mr Franken. If Mr Moore wins his election, it might be asked to investigate the allegation against him, too. That might not trouble him too much, however. After 19 women accused Senator Bob Packwood of harassing them, in the early 1990s, it took the committee three years to investigate.

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