Guy W. Farmer: Sexual harassment: Congress investigates itself
Last Sunday I wrote about pervasive, bipartisan sexual harassment in Hollywood and Washington, D.C. But today, I want to examine the way Congress handles sexual harassment complaints against powerful congressmen and congressional aides. Hint: It isn’t a pretty picture.
We recently learned, no thanks to Congress, of a secret sexual harassment fund that has paid out more than $17 million taxpayer dollars over the past 10 years to settle 264 harassment claims against congressmen and their aides. More recently, we’ve heard about sexual harassment claims against Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and 88-year-old Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), who was described by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi as a “congressional icon,” although I don’t think many icons conduct office business in their underwear. But that’s only my humble opinion for what it’s worth, if anything.
Of course Democrats would rather not talk about Conyers or Franken and Republicans would rather not talk about President Trump — who has boasted about grabbing women by their genitals — or slimy, but very conservative, Alabama Senate candidate Judge Roy Moore, who dated teenage girls when he was a 30-something assistant district attorney, but only with permission from their mothers. Please!
Meanwhile, multimillionaire network news anchors Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose have been fired by NBC and CBS, respectively, for “inappropriate behavior” as the sexual harassment epidemic continues. But we’re focusing on Congress today and asking whether congressmen and their staffers abide by the same laws they pass to govern the rest of us. My short answer is “No,” and I’ll tell you why.
Congressional sexual harassment policies were intentionally written to protect the offenders and to make it exceedingly difficult for harassment victims to pursue their claims. According to Sheryl Stolberg and Yamiche Alcindor of the New York Times, “Lawmakers are facing mounting pressure to end Capitol Hill’s culture of secrecy over sexual harassment … to overhaul its handling of misconduct claims and to unmask lawmakers who have paid settlements using taxpayer money.”
As a first step, the House is expected to adopt a bipartisan resolution that would require all members of Congress and their staffs to participate in mandatory anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training. In my opinion, however, this is business as usual in Washington, where harassers attend training courses before declaring themselves to be “cured” of any sexist or racist tendencies. In the case of ultra-wealthy Hollywood harassers like Kevin Spacey or Harvey Weinstein, they go off to fancy resort spas to receive “sex addiction” treatment. They too claim to be “cured” after a week or two at a luxury spa in Palm Springs or Mallorca. Do I sound cynical? Well, as my Norwegian relatives would say, “Ya sure ya betcha.”
Legislation has been introduced in both houses of Congress that would require harassment claims to be handled publicly; it would also identify those who have paid settlements, but don’t expect that provision to pass because most congressmen and staffers rely on confidentiality agreements to protect their privacy. Of course if any of us “ordinary citizens” are accused of sexual harassment — let’s say someone comes out of the woodwork to claim we said, “My, you look nice this morning” 40 years ago — we’d have to hire an expensive attorney and go to court to defend ourselves, and any settlement funds would come out of our own pockets. It almost makes me want to run for Congress, but I’m not that senile … yet.
As the USA Today Editorial Board opined last week, congressional “secrecy is a betrayal of the public trust and the notion that government works in public.” Amen! Let’s identify those congressional harassers.
Guy W. Farmer is the Appeal’s senior political columnist.