Al Franken, John Conyers, Blake Farenthold, Trent Franks, and Ruben Kihuen are just the beginning.
The "Me Too" movement has marched to the top of Capitol Hill, and lawmakers are scrambling.
Unlike other national moments, this one is forcing Congress to grapple with its long history of sexual harassment and its self-serving culture that has for decades enabled harassers by shielding them from oversight.
Here’s what’s happened in the past month alone. Female House members testified that they are aware of at least three sitting lawmakers guilty of sexual misconduct, eight women accused Sen. Franken, D-Minn., of harassment, six accused Rep. Conyers, D-Mich., of sexual misdeeds, a former campaign staffer accused Rep. Kihuen, D-Nev., of propositioning her for sex, Rep. Franks, R-Ariz., resigned after revelations that he discussed the issue of having surrogate children with two female staffers, and a woman who sued Rep. Farenthold for sexual harassment is speaking out after new details emerged that the Texas Republican secretly used $84,000 in taxpayer money through the Office of Compliance to settle the suit. Franken, Conyers, and Franks have resigned.
Moves are afoot to dismantle the system that protects lawmakers who have sexually harassed or assaulted congressional employees. Female lawmakers are at the battlefront. Whether the accelerating cultural shift in workplaces nationwide can effect real change at the Capitol nevertheless remains unclear. Congress is good at weathering storms and not very diligent in regulating itself.
“Changes are going to have to be forced,” Rep. Anna Eshoo told the Washington Examiner. “There will be those that push back and don’t want the standards to be as high as they should be.”
The House voted unanimously to mandate sexual harassment training at the start of every Congress for all lawmakers and staff. The Senate approved a similar measure Nov. 9, but Eshoo, who has served in Congress since 1993, wasn’t impressed.
“There was a voice vote on the training. You’d think that they want people to be on the record. All right fine, that was easy. But overhauling the system is something else,” she said.
Accountability and transparency
Despite clamoring from both sides to pass legislation that would reform the system, or at the very least make settlement records public, House Speaker Paul Ryan hasn't endorsed passing specific legislation.
Instead, he promised “a comprehensive review of the entire situation.” That began with a Dec. 7 hearing in the House Administration Committee.
This panel reviewed “necessary reforms to the Congressional Accountability Act,” which governs how the legislative branch handles harassment claims and other workplace discrimination issues for all those employed on the Capitol campus. The 1995 act includes privacy and nondisclosure provisions that have concealed workplace discrimination and harassment payouts by the legislative branch.
Many lawmakers are demanding transparency and an end to the policy of using federal funds to pay claims. Ryan said lawmakers are studying the law and the agency that oversees it, the Office of Compliance.
“So, we are waiting,” Ryan said. “We're waiting for the committee to review the entire process to see how this settlements issue needs to be addressed, reformed, going forward. We don't want to make one-off decisions. We want to make a comprehensive review of the entire situation.”
Lawmakers in both parties have proposed new measures that would make significant changes to the way the legislative branch handles harassment and other workplace discrimination claims.
After the hearing reviewing the Congressional Accountability Act, House Administration Committee Chairman Gregg Harper, R-Miss., told the Washington Examiner he plans to move legislation through the panel by late January that would reform the 1995 law. Harper's bill would put lawmakers and staff on the hook for future claims but not expose past settlement.
A different Republican bill, authored by Rep. Ron DeSantis of Florida, is focused exclusively on settlements. It would “unseal the settlement records, bar the use of tax dollars to pay harassment claims against members and staff, prohibit members from using their office budgets to camouflage settlement payments, and require reimbursement of the taxpayer by members and staff who have had settlements paid due to their misconduct.”
The federal government has paid roughly $17 million to settle claims in the past two decades against the legislative branch for workplace violations, including sexual harassment. The federal government’s Office of Compliance does not disclose how much is spent specifically on sexual harassment claims against House or Senate lawmakers and staff.
“The public doesn't know which members have been involved in taxpayer-financed settlements for alleged misconduct,” DeSantis said.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., unveiled a bill last month that would change the way harassment is reported to make it easier and faster to file complaints. It would require the House to reveal legislative offices that pay harassment claims.
“My bill is more than just about payments, it’s about reforming the system, which is again absolutely imperative,” Speier told the Washington Examiner. “We have a system that has protected the harasser, and we’re going to change that so victims don’t have to go through this mandatory mediation and don’t have to have cooling-off periods.”
Victims currently have to agree to as long as three months' mediation before they may file a complaint against a perpetrator. “They should have the right to be represented by counsel and why should we be paying taxpayer funds to have the harasser represented,” Speier said.
Speier and Gillibrand named their bill the Member and Employee Training and Oversight On Congress Act, or ME TOO Congress, after the #MeToo sexual harassment campaign that began when Hollywood movie mogul Harvey Weinstein was exposed as a sexual predator.
Their bill would also rename the Office of Compliance as the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights and make it operate as more of a watchdog. As allegations have rolled in and Congress is finally looking at its own misconduct, it’s become clear how little attention or help victims were given. Employees sometimes were not aware that there was a compliance office or that it was a place they could seek recourse.
“A lot of people didn’t even know this place existed, that there was a place to go, there was a place to report,” Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, told the Washington Examiner.
There’s a palpable difference in the response of female and male lawmakers when asked about what appears to be an inflection point in the culture, which is changing the way the nation thinks about workplace sexual harassment and assault. The women are tired and frustrated, and there’s a strong air of urgency in their voices. They are concerned changes will be too slow or won't last, especially in an institution such as Congress. Male lawmakers want change, too, but say the tide of anger over harassment, which has engulfed the Capitol, has produced fear among members and that may be more of an incentive for change. In other words, it may be more reflexive and defensive than it is a real change of heart.
“Allegations that have come out have been helpful in expediting that change,” said Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C.
“Politicians are very much interested in themselves and their careers, and I think most of them think if something like this is a career-ender that they won’t do it. It’s sad to say that that’s the reason why they would do it as opposed to it’s not appropriate, and it’s wrong,” Tim Ryan said. “This whole thing has put every person on notice.”
Due process versus immediate resignation
Franken may have been the first lawmaker in Congress hit with sexual misconduct allegations in this environment, but Conyers was the first pressured to resign and ultimately gave in. Though Franken eventually resigned after a chorus of his fellow Democratic senators demanded it, the different standards applied to each lawmaker have enraged some Democrats. Black members of Congress think some of it had to do with race.
There's also been a difference in how the two parties have handled alleged perpetrators. Republicans have thrown up their arms over what to do about Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, who is accused of molesting a 14-year-old and pursuing other teenage girls. And GOP lawmakers won’t even talk about the 19 women who have accused President Trump.
Democrats want to be seen as standing on higher moral ground but have struggled with the allegations facing Conyers in particular because he was the longest-serving member of Congress, an inspiration to many, and referred to by party leaders as "an icon." As for the allegations against Kihuen, a freshman member from Nevada, leadership wasted no time in calling on him to resign.
The speed at which a number of members have called on the accused to resign is a matter of contention. Democrats called on Conyers and Franken to resign, but there's a nagging concern that those accused should get due process rather than being forced instantly to quit.
“Farenthold’s got to go, Franken’s got to go, and Conyers has got to go,” Speier said last week. “It’s pretty straightforward. If you’ve conducted yourself in a manner that is either severe or pervasive, that’s sexual harassment. We’re of the opinion everyone spouts zero tolerance. Well, zero tolerance means if it’s severe or pervasive, they go, and in all three cases, it’s one or the other.”
Pressed on whether there should be some kind of due process, rather than a quick jump to demanding resignations for elected officials, Speier said “no.”
“This is not a criminal procedure,” she said. “There are processes in business and in government to get people to recognize that if we have a policy that is zero tolerance, it requires people to act in a certain manner. If they don’t, there are consequences, and you don’t get the government to bail you out, which is what’s happened. Repayment doesn’t fix the fact [Farenthold’s] actually destroyed Lauren Greene’s life. She can’t get a job, and I find that pretty despicable.”
Greene is Farenthold’s former staffer who accused him of sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and creating a hostile work environment.
Not all Democrats agree with Speier. Even as accusers against Franken accumulated, Democrats avoided calling on the Minnesota senator to resign and said they preferred to let the process play out. It wasn't until a seventh accuser came forward, who said Franken claimed it was "his right as an entertainer" to forcibly kiss her, that they felt it was safe to tell him to leave. Meanwhile, a number of House Democrats were irked with the way the conference reacted to allegations against Conyers. Congressional Black Caucus members felt the swift calls on Conyers to resign were racially charged.
“If we move forward on actions against the president of the United States who had 16 women, then there should be a process. If we move forward by crisis if Roy Moore wins and the Senate moves against him or anyone else, it has to be by process,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, told reporters hours after Conyers announced his resignation.
“It is, I think, a tradition of those of us who have been unempowered and have had to fight for civil rights — it does not negate anyone’s allegations — it just says that due process is an important element,” she added.
Democrats have drawn more attention recently as three of the five sitting members accused of sexual misconduct were Democrats. They’ve struggled to agree as more accusers came forward against Conyers and Franken. The lack of coordination set off a number of Democrats, who jumped ahead of their leadership in calling for resignations rather than waiting for direction from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., or Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md.
“It’s important for us to have a discussion about how we’re going to deal with this within our own party and what our position is going to be when these issues come up regarding members of our party,” Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., a vocal critic of how Pelosi and leaders handled the Conyers allegations, told the Washington Examiner. “I don’t see how we can have the moral authority to be critical of any private institution whether it be a TV station, media conglomerate, movie production company, when we don’t police our own.”
Pelosi came under fire from some of her own when she called Conyers an "icon" during a "Meet the Press" interview and didn’t call on him to resign. From the beginning, Pelosi aggressively backed an investigation into Conyers’ alleged conduct, and after her TV appearance, she met with one of Conyers’ accusers. She later applied pressure on Conyers by writing a letter to the Ethics Committee, urging members to expedite their probe. She was also working behind the scenes to urge Conyers to step aside.
And a number of members said they thought she did the best she could given the situation. But it wasn’t enough, said Rice.
“Whether you’re President Trump supporting Roy Moore who all credible evidence showed preyed on teenage girls — I don’t care if it was 30 years ago; no one disputed the credibility of those allegations — or you’re Nancy Pelosi on 'Meet the Press' calling John Conyers an icon, the fact of the matter is that voters, the American people, the public don’t see us handling this situation as seriously as we expect people in the private sector to handle it,” Rice said.
Even with all of the proposed changes and momentum behind those demanding them, Congress is a unique institution that thrives on power and ego. It's filled with lawmakers spending weeks away from home.
“Congress is the last bastion of the old boys' club,” Rice said.
Eshoo said she doesn’t think people realize how recently it was that women began to participate in the federal government, making progress a steep and sluggish climb.
“Men were in charge of this institution for centuries, for centuries,” she said. “We’re new here; we’re like political immigrants, the women.”
“Go into all the hearing rooms; do you see any portraits of women? You don’t.”
It’s that history that makes Eshoo skeptical that Congress can change its ways because, even if no one says it out loud, she said, people are “comfortable with old rules."
“It’s a cushion, but all of that should just be thrown overboard.”
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., expressed more hope.
“We’re at a sea change moment here,” he told the Washington Examiner. “With all the turmoil and all the difficulty and all the reputations that have been damaged, in the end, it’s going be a good thing that we went through this.”
Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., homed in on that which dominates everything in Washington: the political consequences. If the desire to do the right thing doesn’t spur members to act, the prospect of losing elections might.
“Anybody who was home last week and doesn’t understand that the time for change, right now, is real, isn’t going to get re-elected,” she told reporters.
“I was here when Anita Hill happened, and everybody said, ‘Oh, the moment’s here.’ The moment didn’t happen,” Dingell said, referring to the woman who accused Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment in 1991. “The question is: Are we as men and women going to make this real for everybody across the country?”
Susan Ferrechio and Al Weaver contributed to this report.