The sexual harassment wave sweeping Washington has claimed its first accused member of Congress. Or has it?
Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) announced Tuesday he's “retiring” after 53 years in Congress. His “retirement” is effective immediately, he told Detroit's 102.7 radio.
“I am retiring today,” he said.
Some of Conyers's critics and accusers will no doubt see his retirement as Conyers ducking out a back door to escape facing an investigation over multiple accusations that he sexually harassed or mistreated female staff members over two decades.
That's because Conyers is retiring rather going through an ethics investigation by his colleagues in Congress. He hasn't apologized or admitted wrongdoing. He's attempting to keep his seat in the family by endorsing his son for the job.
He has even refused to acknowledge he's leaving because House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other top Democrats have demanded he do so. It's simply time for the 88-year-old to leave Congress, is how Conyers and his family have been pitching this.
“I want everyone to know how much I appreciate the support,” Conyers told Detroit 102.7, “and I want you to know that my legacy will continue through my children.”
Even the language he uses — “retirement” vs. “resign” — indicates Conyers wants to soften the impact these allegations had on his decision to leave. When most lawmakers say they are retiring, it generally means they aren't going to run for reelection again but will serve out the rest of their term. When lawmakers resign, their resignation tends to be effective immediately.
“I think if you retire, effective immediately, it's really a distinction without a difference,” said Kelly Dittmar, a professor at Rutgers University and expert on women in politics.
In one sense, Conyers's abrupt decision to step down is a win for advocates who want Congress to react more swiftly to credible sexual harassment allegations, like the ones Conyers is facing. Democratic leaders wanted him out, and he's out.
Meanwhile, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) remains in Congress while a bipartisan panel of senators investigates claims against him. And Alabama GOP Senate nominee Roy Moore might win an election to Congress next week. Compare that with TV heavyweights Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose, whose networks fired them almost immediately after allegations surfaced in this post-Harvey Weinstein era.
Members of Congress do need to pause before kicking an elected lawmaker out of office over allegations, Dittmar said. “There are protections in place to ensure popularly elected officials can't just get kicked out of office,” she said. “The ultimate form of accountability in Congress, unlike the private sector, is being reelected or not.”
But with Conyers, his Democratic and Republican colleagues in Congress decided the allegations were serious enough to try to force him out before even launching a congressional investigation.
But Conyers's resignation means he will never face an ethics investigation that could corroborate accusers' claims. He has yet to acknowledge any wrongdoing, and there's no reason for him to now that he's out of Congress.
This moment was likely the best moment Conyers's accusers had to try to get justice. It took the recent spate of high-profile allegations in Hollywood and Washington their accusations to gain traction amid sexual harassment reporting policies that are weighted heavily in favor of the lawmakers. (One of his accusers was forced to settle with Conyers in 2015 and sign a nondisclosure agreement.)
Not only that: Conyers is resigning while kicking up a cloud of dust around his accusers. He is “retiring” while maintaining his innocence and leaning on his reputation as a civil rights icon. “My legacy can't be compromised or diminished,” he said in his retirement interview.
By resigning now rather than face an ethics investigation later, he'll probably get to keep his pension as a member of Congress. (Congressional ethics expert Norm Ornstein said it takes conviction of a particular crime for a member of Congress to lose retirement benefits, so it's possible Conyers could have kept the money either way.)
So, yes, Conyers is the first sitting member of Congress to resign amid sexual harassment allegations. But he also got to define the terms of his departure. And that makes his resignation a double-edged sword for those who want their elected officials to be held accountable when they try to use power to extract sex.