Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) announced plans to resign from the Senate earlier this month following multiple allegations that he had groped women. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Tim Murphy is a retired congressman home in southwestern Pennsylvania. Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.) voted with almost all Republicans on Tuesday in support of tax cuts, even shaking House Speaker Paul D. Ryan's hand after the vote.

John Conyers Jr.'s reign as dean of the House is finished, and he has been banished back to Detroit after nearly 53 years of service. Freshman Rep. Ruben Kihuen (Nev.), like every other House Democrat, voted against the Republican tax bill.

All four men were caught up this fall in the reckoning over sexual harassment and hostile workplaces that has swept the nation, facing allegations of inappropriate behavior with either staff members or constituents.

The resulting sanctions, however, have been haphazard and inconsistent.

Some lawmakers, such as Murphy (R) and Conyers (D), have been run out of office. Others, including Farenthold and Kihuen, have clung to their seats by announcing that they will not run for reelection — but will serve the remaining 13 months of their terms.

Even congressional leaders acknowledged that there is little consistency about what "zero tolerance" truly means in the #MeToo moment.


Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) arrives for a meeting of House Republicans on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. Farenthold announced that he wouldn’t seek reelection next year following allegations that he sexually harassed female staff members, but he will remain in his seat until January 2019. (Susan Walsh/AP)

"It's a completely legitimate question," Ryan (R-Wis.) said Tuesday when asked about the disparity. "First of all, each of these members make their own decisions on how to proceed."

Ryan and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) can apply only so much pressure. They are both capable of making resources scarce and reelection difficult for transgressing lawmakers, but that hasn't stopped some of the accused from digging in and dragging out ethics investigations before leaving office at the end of next year.

The inconsistency has led a small cadre of supporters to call for Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) to reconsider his pending resignation. The accusations that he groped women, they have said, should not lead to the political death penalty without due process. Supporters of Conyers initially thought he was being judged according to a different standard from others amid allegations that he had propositioned women on his staff over two decades.

"It's ultimately the decision of a member and their constituents. I mean, the real remedy is at election time," said Rep. Keith Ellison (Minn.), the vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee, which has aggressively demanded immediate resignations from accused Democrats in office. "I can't imagine a legal way to enforce an absolute uniform standard."

Ryan and Pelosi have appointed a bipartisan group of lawmakers to craft a sweeping set of internal reforms that can update laws governing how Congress handles these cases. These lawmakers have little concern for the current inequity in how some lawmakers have seen their careers end and others have received a temporary reprieve.

"Well, I think for years probably, the women have been saying, 'We've suffered through a lot,' " said Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), who is helping lead the effort to craft new rules. "I mean, the public wants to see that there's consequences the way there was for Matt Lauer, for members."

NBC fired Lauer from the "Today" show after receiving what executives called "credible" allegations involving sexual impropriety and assault — and before those accusations had even surfaced publicly. His former co-anchors broke the news of his departure on the air.

But that sort of immediate action does not happen in Congress, where each lawmaker's executive "board" is their constituents. All Ryan and Pelosi can really do is request an ethics investigation.

"Now leadership, either Republican or Democrat, can put pressure on people to leave, and try to hold a standard in their mind that they're going to hold to, but the House can't come up with one standard," said Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (D-La.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Some members have ducked beneath the media frenzy and faced little scrutiny. Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-Fla.) is one such lawmaker. Although the Treasury paid out a settlement of at least $200,000 after a woman accused Hastings of sexual harassment, the former federal judge has largely eluded the kind of drumbeat for him to resign that others have faced. Hastings has vehemently denied the charges.

Comstock said her group is forging consensus to establish better counseling or legal representation for staffers or other alleged victims, so they can go through the process without being forced to hire a lawyer.

The group is also close to making a bold recommendation: No sexual relationships will be allowed between members of Congress and their employees.

"No non-platonic relationships between members and staff and subordinates. That's something that clearly creates a hostile workplace," Comstock said. "We want to make sure that is a bright line and official policy, that people understand that — from the interns all the way up to the members."

The bipartisan group is also in full agreement to abolish the system allowing taxpayer-funded settlements of sexual harassment claims against lawmakers. "Certainly everyone is in agreement on no payment for any members for any sexual harassment settlements," she said.

These payments — dubbed "hush money" by critics, and usually accompanied by a nondisclosure agreement — have proved to be the most politically toxic revelation of recent months.

On Tuesday, the House Administration Committee released new details of these cases, including about $174,000 in payouts for sex-related settlements in six congressional offices from 2008 through 2012. Previously, the panel released data from 2013 to 2017, which included an $84,000 payout to settle a case against Farenthold.

Conyers settled a sexual harassment claim through his own congressional account, masquerading the payout as severance to his accuser.

Both faced calls to resign immediately, but only Conyers did. His case involved more accusers over a longer period of time, while Farenthold has been in office only seven years.

Some hope that once the tumult dies down, a new office can be established to vet these allegations, rather than the current, little-understood Office of Compliance or the Ethics Committee, which is methodical and secretive.

"I'd almost prefer a whole different entity, or set up an entity within Ethics, that is basically EEOC for Congress," Richmond said.

Franken in his resignation speech noted that the ethics probe would have lasted for months or years, hanging a cloud over his service during that period no matter the ultimate judgment.

While recognizing inconsistency of current events, Ryan told reporters that he was focused on setting up the right procedures for going forward that would update the laws and rules governing these cases.

"So that we have standards, so that we have the right kind of transparency," he said.

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