Analysis: As corporate America fires alleged sexual harassers, Washington stumbles over how to punish its transgressors

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) is among elected officials accused of sexual harassment.
Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) is among elected officials accused of sexual harassment.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

American corporations in recent weeks have scythed through the ranks of alleged sexual harassers, dispatching personalities as powerful as movie producer Harvey Weinstein and television anchor Matt Lauer, who was swiftly fired on Wednesday after a credible accusation of sexual misbehavior.

But in Washington, the growing public intolerance for harassment has tied politicians in partisan pretzels, and left them grappling for a way to assess guilt and mete out consequences.

Several factors have slowed the political response.

In the sharply divided Capitol, partisanship inevitably affects how cases are viewed. So does a reluctance to sit in judgment of peers who are longtime friends and allies. Congress also has more than a whiff of entitlement, accustomed to operating by its own rules while other organizations rush to protect themselves from liability.


Beyond that, some lawmakers argue that voters, not colleagues, should serve as the ultimate judges of those under scrutiny.

When Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) was asked Wednesday about the difference between quick actions taken against non-politicians and lagging moves against members of Congress like Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, he blurted out one line:

“Who elected them?” he said, referring to the private-sector figures.

But the slow response also reflects a political system struggling to sort out the nuances of wrongdoing on a topic that until recently was kept mostly under wraps.

Melanie Sloan, a Washington ethics lawyer who accused Conyers of gender discrimination when she worked for him decades ago, said, for example, that she saw his case and that of Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota, accused of grabbing several women’s buttocks during photo sessions, as distinct.

With Conyers, Roy Moore, the Alabama Senate candidate who is accused of inappropriate contact with teenaged girls, and President Trump, “you have to tar everyone with the same brush,” she said.

Conyers has been accused of harassing several women who worked for him and, in at least one case, agreed to a $27,000 wrongful firing settlement for a woman aide who said she spurned his advances. Trump has been accused by numerous women of multiple acts of misconduct, which he denies.


As for Franken? “I just don’t know. I’m not OK with what Franken has done. Why am I more OK with Conyers’ resignation? The numbers, the settlement and maybe I also happen to know what Conyers is like,” she said.

Jackie Speier, the Bay Area House Democrat who has tried for years to improve Congress’ mechanism for protecting accusers, is one of the authors of a bipartisan measure that would, among other things, require members found to have sexually harassed others to repay the Treasury for settlements and make those agreements public.

Speier said the punishment options were “questions that…we need to sort out over the next couple of months.”

“I do think there are gradations in terms of sexual harassment,” she said. “A sexual innuendo versus grabbing someone’s breasts are two different things. Is there a pattern? That’s what needs to be discussed.”

Speier has said that Moore should not be allowed to serve as a senator if he wins Alabama’s Dec. 12 election — a position that several leading Republicans have also taken. But asked if Conyers should resign, she declined to answer.

She was hardly the only one trying to step around such judgments. On Wednesday, both parties dodged questions regarding a fellow partisan’s culpability.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), waffled when asked whether leading by example — which he had just said the House should do when it came to sexual harassment — meant believing more than a dozen women who last year accused Trump of misbehavior.

“I’m just making sure this place works the right way,” Ryan said.

Democrats offered similar dodges when asked about Conyers, who has been debating whether to resign. In part that is because he was one of the founders of the Congressional Black Caucus, an influential element of the party,

Rep. Linda Sanchez of suburban Los Angeles said it was “a good first step” that members voted Wednesday to require sexual harassment training, but said that in the case of Conyers “I don’t know all the facts.”

Democratic caucus chairman Joseph Crowley of New York said that Congress “should be not the gold standard, but the platinum standard.” But he, too, declined to say whether Conyers should resign.

Part of the jumbled Washington response rests on the fact that the incidents brought to light so far affect both parties.

Democrats once expected to gain political advantage from the Moore controversy, much as they did in 2012 after Todd Akin, a Republican senate candidate from Missouri, said in an interview that rape victims did not need a right to abortion because in “legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down” and prevent pregnancy.

That could yet happen if Moore wins, but for now, “there’s no obvious winner or loser in terms of partisanship here,” said Peter Brown of the Quinnipiac Poll. “It’s both Republicans and Democrats….The question may not be which party has how many incidents; it may be which incident sticks in people’s minds.”

The audience potentially looking at the parties’ response is immense: A Quinnipiac Poll last week found that 60% of women voters said they had been sexually harassed; of those about 7 in 10 said the harassment occurred at their workplace.

But there were partisan schisms: Overall, 60% of voters said Moore should be expelled from the Senate if he wins. Republicans said he should not be expelled, by a ratio of 49% to 33%.

Republicans appear to be more skeptical regardless of who is accused. In a recent Morning Consult poll, 39% of Democrats said they found the Conyers claims credible, a view shared by 32% of Republicans.

Since the Washington Post reported in early November that four women had accused Moore of making advances on teenagers decades ago when he was in his 30s and a local prosecutor, the party’s response has been split. Senior Republicans in Washington, including Ryan and Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, have called on Moore to leave the race, seeing him as an anvil around the party’s neck in 2018.

But others say the party’s need to retain the Senate seat should override concerns about Moore. A victory by Democrat Doug Jones, who is narrowly trailing in the most recent polls, would cut the GOP majority from 52-48 to 51-49.

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who has come out against Moore, explained the logic Wednesday in an interview with Politico.

“It is a complicated, difficult situation. Because on the one hand, as a Republican, you want the Republican Party to keep the seat. On the other hand, I personally find the accusations against him to be credible, and I don’t think he has done or said anything in the last month that has helped himself or in any way made me feel better about it,” Rubio said. “But he’s staying in the race, the people of Alabama will have their vote and we’ll move on from there.”

For more on politics from Cathleen Decker »

Twitter: @cathleendecker


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