Congress reeling from sexual harassment deluge
by admin ·
With no clear roadmap for how to deal with such topics, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other leaders are responding to the allegations on a case-by-case basis — and on the fly.
The stream of public revelations has put leaders in a pressure cooker. Immediately after allegations surface, they face pressure to forge quick judgments about the credibility of the allegations and the severity of the misconduct, often while relying on reports from anonymous accusers.
The makeshift method has led to swift calls for resignation for some members and a messy, painful, drawn-out process for others.
Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) had no choice but to resign this week after his female Senate colleagues banded together and called for his ouster. Meanwhile, Pelosi waffled for days about whether the dean of the House, Michigan Democrat John Conyers Jr., should go after multiple female ex-staffers accused him of unwanted advances and groping.
Ryan quickly urged former Rep. Trent Franks to resign after the Arizona Republican admitted he asked a pair of female staffers to become surrogate mothers and bear his children. (Franks resigned Friday). But Ryan has been more muted in dealing with the unique cases of two Texas Republicans: Reps. Blake Farenthold (who used $84,000 in taxpayer money to settle a staffer’s harassment claims) and Joe Barton (who sent sexually explicit messages to a woman on Facebook and had a nude picture of himself get leaked on Twitter).
The uneven response has infuriated some lawmakers, who’ve demanded more aggressiveness from their leadership. It’s sparked accusations from others, particularly members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), that leaders have employed a double standard in their approach to individual cases.
And it’s prompted near-universal calls for the adoption of a clear set of guidelines on Capitol Hill that would empower victims to report abuse and settle cases, while protecting the accused from false allegations.
“It’s complicated. It’s muddled,” Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the Democratic whip, acknowledged. “We need a process — open, transparent, and timely — to make a determination.”
The case of Rep. Ruben Kihuen, a freshman Nevada Democrat accused of propositioning a former campaign aide, is emblematic of the haphazard approach that’s accompanied the harassment cases so far.
Hoyer has stopped short of calling for Kihuen to resign, noting that he’s denied the allegations. But “if, in fact, the allegations were shown to be accurate,” Hoyer added, “then he should resign.”
Other Democratic leaders, though, think they’ve seen enough evidence already. Both Pelosi and Rep. Ben Ray Luján (N.M.), head of the Democrats’ campaign arm, quickly called for Kihuen to step down.
“The young woman’s documented account is convincing, and I commend her for the courage it took to come forward,” Pelosi said.
Such inconsistencies have frustrated some rank-and-file members. Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.), a former prosecutor who’s been among the most vocal Democrats urging accused lawmakers to resign, said much of the reason Congress’s approval rating is at a historic low is because the public perceives elected officials to be applying different, more lenient standards to themselves.
“That’s the culture that has to change,” Rice said. “This is not a legal system; this is right now the court of public opinion. And I think the public has to see us do here what everyone is doing out in the private sector and hold each other accountable.”
At his weekly news conference, Ryan openly wrestled with questions of how to balance the needs of the accusers with the rights of the accused. Both the House and Senate recently voted to mandate all members and their staff take anti-harassment training. And the House Administration Committee held a hearing Thursday to explore ways to improve the handling of sexual harassment cases involving lawmakers.
Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) has offered legislation requiring lawmakers who settle harassment claims to be named publicly; they would also have to pay back the Treasury for taxpayer-funded settlements.
“So we’ve got to figure out, how do we make sure all of these claims are respected and honored, that there is a system of due process, and that there are standards that are being met?” Ryan told reporters. “Your first reaction is just full, total transparency, and then what I’ve learned is, well, victims don’t necessarily want that. So you’ve got to be careful that you protect victims and their needs and their concerns, as well.
“This is why we need to be painstaking in making sure that we get this right, that we get it fair,” the Speaker went on. “This really is a watershed moment for our country, and what I really hope that we get out of this is real, positive, lasting change.”
The three bombshell resignations in a single week — Conyers, Franken and Franks — have created a panicked atmosphere on Capitol Hill. Rumors are running rampant. The latest ricocheting around the Capitol is that a major national news outlet will publish a list of 20 to 30 lawmakers accused of harassment in the coming days. One GOP source said the list could refer to secret Congressional Office of Compliance records of lawmakers who’ve privately settled sexual harassment claims in recent decades.
This week, lawmakers have been overheard whispering in the halls about who could be next. Staffers are asking reporters if they’ve heard of any new names, fretting about whether their boss has any skeletons in the closet.
One top Democratic aide described Friday’s weekly meeting of Senate chiefs of staff as somber. Some in the room voiced concerns about Franken staffers who will suddenly be looking for work during the holidays.
With Conyers, Franken and Franks out, the focus has turned to other lawmakers facing allegations like Farenthold and Barton. Rep. Mia Love (R-Utah) said Farenthold should resign, while senior members of the Texas delegation confronted Barton and told him he needs to quit now. A furious Barton stormed out of the delegation meeting, one participant said.
Farenthold has denied the allegations and said he won’t quit Congress; he’s also pointed out that the Office of Congressional Ethics dismissed his former staffer’s claim that he sexually harassed and discriminated against her. The 68-year-old Barton, the dean of the Texas delegation and the former Energy and Commerce chairman, has said he’ll retire at the end of 2018, but told The Hill he’ll serve out the rest of his term.
Part of the reason congressional leaders are struggling to contain the fallout is because of who’s occupying the Oval Office.
Usually when the nation is confronted with a phenomenon like the #MeToo movement — one that has taken down titans of Hollywood, business, politics and the press — the president would give a major address to ease fears and guide the country through the tumult.
But President Trump, accused by at least 16 women of inappropriate conduct, is unlikely to wade into the issue.
In fact, while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and his campaign chief, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), have demanded that Alabama GOP Senate hopeful Roy Moore drop out, Trump has been rooting for Moore ahead of Tuesday’s special election. Moore is accused of pursuing relationships with teenage girls and, in some cases, assaulting them.
“The Pelosi/Schumer Puppet Jones would vote against us 100% of the time,” Trump tweeted Friday. “He’s bad on Crime, Life, Border, Vets, Guns & Military. VOTE ROY MOORE!”
Back on Capitol Hill, there’s also pervasive disagreement over how much power congressional leaders should have in determining the fate of elected colleagues whose ultimate responsibility is to the voters they serve.
Some fear that quick calls for resignation have turned Hill leaders into judge and jury, undermining the voice of those voters. Others want to grant Congress greater authority to expel accused lawmakers, in lieu of merely applying political pressure on them to step down.
“Resignation’s not the right issue, because resignation is basically a function of your capacity for shame,” said Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.). “What we need to do, I think, is focus as an institution on how we can expel members who are guilty of this. Because we do differ from a business. Nobody hired us.”
Pelosi has acknowledged both the disagreements and the difficulties facing lawmakers seeking to tackle harassment without turning the process into a witch hunt. She said she’s in talks with victims, lawyers and other experts about how to achieve that balance.
“We have a responsibility to uphold the dignity of the House of Representatives. We want to protect the rights of the accused, but we want to make sure that the victims have the opportunity they need to come forward,” she said Thursday. “We’re studying it very carefully.”
In the meantime, a growing a number of lawmakers in both parties are warning against overreaching in the name of weeding out harassers, noting that jittery members are already walking on eggshells in their everyday approach to colleagues and staffers of the opposite sex. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) described lawmakers “getting on elevators and turning to the side” for fear of contact that might be deemed inappropriate.
“Maybe it will burn out, and things will settle back to some point where there’s balance. But now, some people are saying, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t hire women in the office,’ ” he said. “It’s not helpful.”
Cleaver described a recent conversation with a veteran Republican, in which the GOP lawmaker warned that the current environment threatens to ruin any sense of camaraderie on Capitol Hill.
“He’s been here a long time, and he said, ‘Look, we’re getting ready to destroy this institution.’ And he said, ‘I don’t know if people realize this is happening.’ And he said, ‘This is an awful, awful feeling up here on this Hill,’ ” Cleaver said.
“And it is.”