Heads of state. Celebrities. Hollywood moguls. Journalists. They've all been the focus of sexual misconduct allegations since the Harvey Weinstein scandal exploded. But members of Congress have largely escaped — until now.
That ended this past week in a big way. The wave of sexual harassment scandals sweeping the nation has slammed into Congress. And it has spared no party.
Alabama Republican Roy Moore's all-but-assured election next month to the Senate is now in serious question now that least six women have accused him of trying to start relationships with them when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s.
In the midst of the Moore scandal, House lawmakers held a stunning hearing Tuesday about sexual misconduct, where one witness testified that two sitting members of Congress were harassers. Witnesses told stories of members grabbing accusers' genitals on the House floor, disrobing in front of a female staffer late at night, and propositioning staffers by asking things like, “Are you going to be a good girl?”
On Thursday, an accuser did name names: A Los Angeles radio anchor accused Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) of unwanted kissing and groping a decade ago.
This all happened in one calendar week. Moore denies the charges. Franken originally said he perceived the incident differently than his accuser and issued a brief apology. Then he issued a longer apology — “There's no excuse” — and welcomed an ethics investigation, saying he will “gladly cooperate.”
But we may never know the names of all the members of Congress whose colleagues accuse them of sexual harassment. That's because when it comes to being held accountable for sexual harassment, Congress writes its own rules. And those rules have generally meant that unless an accuser chooses to speak up publicly against a person in power — as Moore's and Franken's accusers have — lawmakers can largely get away with it.
As The Post's Michelle Ye Hee Lee and Elise Viebeck found in a recent investigation, Congress's rules about holding lawmakers accountable for sexual harassment put an extreme amount of pressure on the victim:
- Accusers can file lawsuits only if they first agree to go through months of counseling and mediation.
- Then, a special congressional office is charged with trying to resolve the cases out of court.
- If after all of that, your lawmaker-harasser is found guilty and there's a settlement, they don't have to pay. Confidential payments come out of a special U.S. Treasury fund.
Until this month, Congress hasn't even been required to learn what sexual harassment is. Viebeck reported last week that for the first time in its two-century-plus history, the Senate will require its members and their aides to undergo training to prevent sexual harassment. The House of Representatives followed suit soon after by mandating training.
That came only after more than 1,500 former employees of Congress signed a letter urging it to get its act together and revamp the reporting process.
On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of lawmakers proposed a bill to overhaul Congress's victim-burdensome process for reporting sexual assault. But it remains to be seen whether that gets any traction.
This week may have only scratched the surface of Congress's sexual harassment problems, which some lawmakers suggested could be even more prevalent than in society at large.
Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) said in Tuesday's hearing that his female chief of staff, “who has spent most of her career on Capitol Hill, said she does not know a single woman in her age group who has not experienced inappropriate conduct in the workplace.”
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) said Tuesday that $15 million of taxpayer money has been paid out over the past decade to settle harassment and discrimination cases involving members of Congress. (Not all of that has been sexual in nature.)
The irony is that Congress could play a leading role in changing this culture of power and sex and people using power for sex. Franken's accuser says she was motivated by Speier sharing her story of being forcibly kissed in Congress years ago when she was an aide.
“At that moment, I thought to myself, Al Franken did that exact same thing to me,” wrote Leeann Tweeden.
But for now, it looks like members of Congress aren't just ducking their moral responsibility. Some seem to be creating the same problems they criticize others for and getting away with it.