The Uproar

#MeToo: Congressional Edition

It+is+the+duty+of+the+legislature+to+ensure+that+wealth+%28and+income%2C+by+default%29+is+not+concentrated+in+the+hands+of+a+powerful+few%2C+because+to+do+so+is+to+begin+destroying+the+fabric+of+America.
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#MeToo: Congressional Edition

It is the duty of the legislature to ensure that wealth (and income, by default) is not concentrated in the hands of a powerful few, because to do so is to begin destroying the fabric of America.

It is the duty of the legislature to ensure that wealth (and income, by default) is not concentrated in the hands of a powerful few, because to do so is to begin destroying the fabric of America.

graphic by Alex Flagg

It is the duty of the legislature to ensure that wealth (and income, by default) is not concentrated in the hands of a powerful few, because to do so is to begin destroying the fabric of America.

graphic by Alex Flagg

graphic by Alex Flagg

It is the duty of the legislature to ensure that wealth (and income, by default) is not concentrated in the hands of a powerful few, because to do so is to begin destroying the fabric of America.

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We live in a new era, a changed era, a — dare I say — revolutionary era. Times have changed for men and women in America, nay, across the world as lifetimes of sexual harassment and assault, toxic work environments, quotidien degradation, and more have been exposed in workplaces, from the casting couches of Hollywood to the hallowed halls of Congress, from hidden hotel rooms to the restaurant kitchens.

Beginning with the cataclysmic New York Times report that documented Harvey Weinstein’s history of pervasive sexual assault, survivors–the majority women–have forced the attention of the world onto the grim reality of everything from sexual misconduct to rape that occurs in essentially all industries. The Silence Breakers were TIME Magazine’s 2017 Person of the Year. Powerful men have been toppled, sentenced to bear the burden of their actions by punishments as harsh and varying as months in a luxury sex addiction rehab to returning quietly to their old job of making jokes bemoaning the monetary losses they have incurred from accusations of assault. The cry of #Time’sUp resounded throughout social media, just like #MeToo and #WhyIDidn’tReport. And #notokay. And #BelieveWomen. And #MeAt14 (after the Roy Moore accusations). And #YesAllWomen. And all the other hashtags meant to act as both closure and magnifying glass, a tide of pain and frustration and rage that, over and over, survivors would have to rehash a traumatic moment in their lives, and, over and over, half of the population still wouldn’t be able to comprehend the magnitude of the problem.

We must listen to victims with an unbiased ear, putting aside personal regard for the accused and allowing them to tell their stories.”

And, oh, have there been changes. Men have now become reportedly afraid of interacting with their female coworkers, because women can not apparently discern the difference between discussions of new data and groping. Many, like Vice President Pence, have adopted the “Billy Graham Rule,” where men will not spend time alone with women other than their wife because all women are sinful Eves and men are inherently incapable of resisting the temptation to stray off the righteous path. And here lies the catch-22 for women: by keeping quiet, they risk predators harming other women, their careers destroyed and their minds consumed by endless self-doubt and pre-emptive actions on their part to avoid further abuse; by speaking up, they are denied the opportunities to advance and appear “difficult” to work with. This is the lesson learned from exposing rampant sexual harassment in the workplace:  it is better to institute ludicrous and damaging personal codes rather than learning the simple lesson to not sexually harass anyone.

But maybe, just maybe, times are truly and genuinely beginning to change. The Army has instituted a new sexual harassment training policy that actually attempts to reduce structural misogyny by emphasizing harassment as rooted in exploitation of power and antithetical to its values. Google and various other industry powerhouses have ended their forced arbitration requirements which mandated any complaints to be made in private and often resulted in cushy payouts for perpetrators. And even Congress, sluggish, patriarchal Congress, has finally made changes to its sexual harassment policy. But before the good news, I have to first make you furious.

If you haven’t somehow heard, Congress and American politics in general has a sexual harassment problem. According to a 2016 CQ Roll Call survey, 1 in 6 female staffers said that they had been personally victimized. And the names of alleged perpetrators really just roll off the tongue (relatively complete list here). Senator Al Franken (resigned). Rep. John Conyers, Jr. (resigned). Rep. Pat Meehan (resigned). Rep. Blake Farenthold (resigned). Rep. Trent Franks (resigned). Rep. Bobby Scott (re-elected). Rep. Rubén Kihuen (retired). Rep. Tony Cardénas (re-elected). Rep. Alcee Hastings (re-elected). Justice Brett Kavanaugh (confirmed). President Donald Trump (serving). And former President George H.W. Bush (deceased). This list of names does not include members of state governments or Congressional aides and it covers only the politicians that “fell” since the Weinstein report, but it is still a great many, indicative of the extent of the problem. The accusations against these men–most of which have been confirmed by internal investigations–range from your everyday harassment women have to deal with (a couple of gropes or explicit comments) to the truly grotesque (in a move straight from The Handmaid’s Tale, Franks approached two aides and offered to pay them $5 million to act as a surrogate for him and his wife; he also tried to persuade one that they were in love by barraging her with articles about how to know that one is in love). These men were Democrats and Republicans, beloved feminist champions and protectors of “traditional family values,” showing that in this partisan world, there is at least one more bipartisan activity: degrading and abusing women, reminding them that for all their advancements today, for all the rhetoric about female empowerment and #LeanIn, they are still nothing more than objects and inferiors to be taken advantage of.

And it gets worse. How, you might ask, could it possibly get worse after we have found that those in charge of governing this nation, the stewards of liberty and American values, have created toxic work environments and sustained an atmosphere of rampant sexual harassment without repercussions? What is worse is the way that accusers/victims are dealt with. This isn’t, of course, a phenomenon isolated to Congress, as we as a society have proven time and time again that victims’ voices don’t matter and that it was probably their fault, anyways. But long-standing Congressional rules (under the ironically named 1995 Congressional Accountability Act) on dealing with harassment take things to an extreme. First, after someone seeks to make a complaint, there is a required 30-day counseling period. Second, the Office of Compliance oversees a mandatory 30-day mediation process between victim and perpetrator, one which victims have described as more of an interrogation than arbitration. Then, there is yet another 30-day “cooling-off” period before victims of harassment can even file complaints against their harassers. A “cooling-off” period to do what, exactly? Make victims think long and hard about whether they “really want to damage a well-liked member’s career because of a few misinterpreted gropes?” Delay the allegations and investigations as long as possible so that victims get the message that the system doesn’t care about them (three months should be enough for them to forget likely one of the most traumatic moments of their life!)? And finally, if the accuser still hasn’t given up, an administrative hearing will be held or civil action (a lawsuit) will be processed, both of which the accused may appeal. Generally, this entire process results in some form of a private settlement, where victims are paid to keep quiet and everything else remains business as usual. A Congressperson has never been expelled for sexual harassment. But wait, there’s more. Where does the money to pay off victims come from? If you guessed the pockets of the perpetrators, you are hilariously, naively wrong. American taxpayers foot the bill for their representatives’ indiscretions, as members are allowed to use taxpayer-funded accounts intended for paying for office salaries and expenses to pay for the settlements. The case of Representative Blake Farenthold comes to mind, the Texan who spent $84,000 of taxpayer money to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by a former aide; though he promised to repay the money, he quit before having to do so and immediately found a cushy $160,000-a-year lobbyist job. Between 1997 and 2014, the US Treasury has paid $15.2 million in settlements for Capitol Hill work violations, though the exact amount addressing sexual harassment is unknown.

We must force a cultural change, blazing forward the message that we will no longer turn a blind eye to harassment of any kind, that the abuses of power tolerated in the past are no longer acceptable. ”

I began this article quite depressingly because, when I started writing it, there appeared little hope of a bill dealing with sexual harassment being passed by the Senate and the House. And if Congress couldn’t even pass legislation doing right by their own, how could they possibly do right by the nation, on sexual harassment or on any issue? The House had passed a bipartisan bill in February addressing sexual harassment while the Senate passed one in May, but it wasn’t until half a year later on December 12 that both bodies finally agreed on a compromise bill, which passed unanimously in both chambers. Due to a few complications, the success of the bill was uncertain up until its vote was called. First, the House bill was much stronger than the Senate bill, which had been oddly watered down. It pushed for full transparency in disclosing settlements made, created a third-party process for investigating allegations (rather than leaving it up to members of the Ethics Committee, which the Senate Bill did, and making investigations susceptible to bias), provided legal representation to accusers, required lawmakers to pay out of pocket for all forms of sexual harassment and discrimination, and defined harassment more broadly than the Senate bill (which required harassment to be “severe or pervasive” and “unwanted,” leaving the door open for defenses of the victim “wanting it”). The Senate balked on the legal representation point and requiring lawmakers to pay out of pocket for discrimination settlements (they acquiesced to personal responsibility for harassment settlements, which seems like the bare minimum to be done). Another roadblock was the necessity for Congress to pass an appropriations package to continue funding for the government, pushing the sexual harassment legislation to the background.

Ultimately, the compromise bill that passed was truly a compromise. It placed a cap of $300,000 for member-liability for court-awarded judgements, but removed the Senate bill’s cap on member liability for cases ending in settlements. The Treasury Department would be responsible for paying victims initially, allowing payments to be processed expediently, but members would be required to reimburse the government within 90 days for harassment that they personally committed, even if they left office. The bill furthermore removed the “cooling off” period prior to filing a complaint and would provide legal counsel to House staff who filed complaints and legal assistance to Senate staff. Protection would also be extended to interns, pages, and other temporary staff. All settlements would be made public, with an annual review released as well. The bill has now moved on to the President’s desk; he is expected to sign it, which will be an interesting irony, given the tawdry list of allegations of sexual assault to his own name and his disdain for accusers. The new Democratic House is also expected to strengthen reforms to Congress’ sexual harassment policy.

To be honest, I don’t know how to react to the success of this bill. It is certainly a success, overturning an archaic law to respond to a pervasive problem in one of this nation’s highest institutions. But the fact that it took so long to pass and that its necessity was so furiously debated shows that simply revising one law isn’t enough. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stalled the Senate’s bill because his members feared potential financial exposure, suggesting that more than a few have skeletons in the closet. Additionally, it is frustrating and infuriating that the Senate bill required harassment to be “pervasive” and “unwanted,” an outdated definition that gets to the crux of the body’s generational and gendered problems. The definition of harassment (specifically sexual harassment) is that it is unwanted. How difficult of a concept is that to grasp? But all of this shows that rather than simply legislative, change must also be cultural. The #MeToo movement, both in regards to American politics and to the larger culture, only brought the national spotlight on issues that most people already knew of and quietly condoned. We pushed aside groping at photo ops because a politician was a progressive icon, at the forefront of the #Resistance and genuinely charismatic and full of ideas. We pushed aside lascivious innuendos because a politician was one of our people, fighting for the common man and speaking truth to power. We pushed aside revenge porn and physical abuse because a politician would protect the values that we cared for and because who else would support us, champion us? But we cannot continue falling into the trap of he said, she said and the clear-cut world of accusal and denial, seduced by the easy lure of tribalism and assuming that all allegations are politically motivated. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), when calling for her well-liked colleague and feminist icon Senator Al Franken (D-MN) to resign after allegations and visual evidence of groping, said it best: “You either value women or you don’t. You either stand up for survivors or you don’t. You either believe women when they’ve been harassed or violated, or you don’t.” We must listen to victims with an unbiased ear, putting aside personal regard for the accused and allowing them to tell their stories.

We must hold abusers–especially those in Congress, whom we directly elect–accountable, because to allow them to keep their power is the worst sort of abdication of our own power. And we must force a cultural change, blazing forward the message that we will no longer turn a blind eye to harassment of any kind, that the abuses of power tolerated in the past are no longer acceptable. Congress’ sexual harassment policy overhaul was a good start. But the fight is by no means finished.

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#MeToo: Congressional Edition