Color of Law
Congress Has Its Own Creep Protection System
The sexual harassers in Washington rarely face consequences—and stick taxpayers with the bill when they do.
We are seeing how an informal protection racket for powerful men works as candidate Roy Moore refuses to withdraw from the Alabama Senate race in the face of gruesome sexual assault charges. The former district attorney warned his young prey not to complain because no one would believe them. They didn’t for 30 years until they got the nerve post-Weinstein to speak up. Now even Sean Hannity believes them.
The predator protection system in Washington is a formal one administered by the Office of Compliance and it has held up for even longer. As the brave women of Alabama buck their party, their pastors, and their civic leaders who stubbornly still believe Moore, there are no similar accusations naming predators roiling Capitol Hill. Try to list those cited for sexual harassment there. If you get to five—and that’s counting the famous case of Sen. Bob Packwood—I’ll send you a subscription to The Daily Beast.
What’s different about Washington is that however dark and demented the worlds of Harvey Weinstein, Mark Halperin, and Louis C.K. may be, they did not have the color of law.
In the nation’s capital, members of Congress have the protection of a closed system where sexual harassment complaints go to die. The OOC oversees an excruciating months-long process—30 days of counseling for the complainant, 15 days to think it over, 30 more days of forced mediation—that must happen before any official action can be taken. All the while, the victim shows up every day to work without breathing a word to anyone or she will be sanctioned for it.
If after all that, the victim actually files and a member or staffer is found guilty, the bill for his conduct goes to the taxpayer. The estimated $15 million paid out over the last decade is a pittance next to what Rupert Murdoch paid to protect his stars but when it comes from the U.S. Treasury, it looks like an official protection racket that would make Zimbabwe proud.
It’s a system severely broken. There’s a better chance that a victim will be tagged with a Scarlet T for troublemaker and never work in this town again than there is that someone will be called to account. In a Roll Call survey, 40 percent of female staffers say there is a serious sexual harassment problem on the Hill but 90 percent of them don’t know where to go with their complaint. It’s a “rigged” system purposely designed to “impede” women, according to California Congresswoman Jackie Speier who as a congressional staffer was attacked by the office’s chief of staff who “held my face, kissed me and stuck his tongue in my mouth.”
That’s why one well-known rule is never get on a members-only elevator alone if invited, and why Speier is working with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand to end the “be a good girl, twirl for me” ethos.
Up until now, even as pent-up anger is spilling out to other professions post-Weinstein, the Hill is a world unto itself. There’s no H.R., no management or organization chart—just arrangements at the whim of individual members each with a budget of up to $4 million to hire staff. Picture a Senate office, each a principality unto itself, richly paneled in mahogany with massive windows looking out on manicured grounds with sweeping views of Washington. Aides to the prince, themselves often intent on climbing the greasy pole of politics, will do anything to please the boss. Interns thrilled to be there happily fetch a Diet Coke and switch out the cardboard carryout box for a silver tray.
There are few guardrails on personal behavior, less now that more and more members, and staffers, live weekdays in Washington, some in their offices. The daily routine of a home life is replaced by fundraisers with aged bourbon and rare roast beef, or dinners at the Palm with lobbyists, otherwise known as “friends” to avoid having to pay. Hypocrisy abounds. When Speaker Newt Gingrich was leading the effort to impeach Bill Clinton for lying about his involvement with an intern, he was involved in a sexual relationship with a congressional staffer while married to his second wife. With Republicans in charge, nothing ever happened to him. The staffer is now Gingrich’s third wife America’s ambassador to the Vatican, a whole other story for another day.
In the meantime, there’s a creep list circulating on the Hill and there are finally efforts to demolish the current system—one which took eons to discipline Packwood, the Senate’s Bill Cosby. The Senate passed a resolution last week calling for mandatory sexual harassment training and the House has yet to follow suit even on that. There were hearings yesterday where Virginia Republican Barbara Comstock told the story of a young woman who was greeted in a towel by a member who told her to bring him documents at home. He quickly dispensed with the formality of the towel when she got inside. It’s time for women to consider wearing body cameras.
Today, Speier and Gillibrand formally introduced their bill to replace the current system with one that makes counseling and mediation optional, allows working remotely or a paid leave of absence, publishes settlements (only by office not member), and requires that members repay the Treasury.
It’s called the Member and Employee Training and Oversight On Congress Act, or the Me Too bill even as, or perhaps because, most women on the Hill are fearful of sharing their own #metoo stories that could be traced back to them. Female members themselves were afraid to name male members they know are creeping out staff as Monday’s hearing was taking place.
Let’s hope this bill fares better than Gillibrand’s annual effort to stop three star generals from protecting two star generals who commit sexual assault in the military. It’s defeated every year. But that was before Weinstein, Halperin, and others. It’s too soon to say we live in a new day. But not too soon to say that the old one is drawing to a close.