The cascade of sexual misconduct allegations in 2017 bore significant consequences for powerful men in all industries. Many of the accused—from movie mogul Harvey Weinstein to news anchor Matt Lauer to comedian Louis C. K.—were swiftly fired from their companies, had contracts severed, or resigned in disgrace. The exception to this trend, it seems, is in politics: though there is no shortage of politicians accused of misconduct, they have barely faced repercussions for their actions. Notable recent casualties in national politics—Senator Al Franken (D-MN) and Rep. John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI), both of whom had multiple accusers—stepped down themselves, but only after weeks of pressure.
It is particularly infuriating that in the midst of this national reckoning, the president of the United States—himself accused of twenty-one counts of sexual assault—endorsed Roy Moore, the Republican candidate for U.S. senator from Alabama, despite numerous accusations of child molestation against him. How is it that politicians get away with sexual misconduct?
Ramifications of sexual assault play out differently in politics than in other industries, where boards or consumers can take swift action against perpetrators. Ultimately, in a democracy, it is voters that are holding politicians accountable, through elections. But voters can be an insufficient corrective. They may have to wait years for a chance to oust a politician from office for bad behavior. And even then, they may subvert their outrage over assault charges in favor of firmly held partisan beliefs—as the Alabama senatorial race showed.
What the Alabama Race Revealed about Voter Opinion on Accountability
The majority of American voters strongly disapprove of sexual misconduct. Many of them have experienced it themselves: according to a recent Quinnipiac University national poll, six in ten American women voters have been sexually harassed. According to the poll, taken just before the Alabama special elections on December 12, 60 percent of American voters said the U.S. Senate should expel Roy Moore if elected. Across respondents’ listed party, gender, education, age, and racial groups, nearly all had more answers in favor of expulsion than against. Generally speaking, 62 percent of respondents overall said they would not vote for a candidate accused of sexual harassment despite shared ideology, and only 27 percent said they would consider it; 81 percent of Democrats answered that they would not vote for this kind of candidate, and only 12 percent said they would consider it. The one notable exception was Republicans, among whom 41 percent said they would not vote for the candidate, and 43 percent said they would consider it.
|Question: If a political candidate has been accused of sexual harassment by multiple women, would you still consider voting for them if you agreed with them on the issues, or would you definitely not vote for them?
|Definitely not vote
|Source: Quinnipiac University National Poll, November 21, 2017.
So while Moore lost the Alabama special election to Democratic candidate Doug Jones, fewer voters considered holding Moore accountable as part of their voting decision than the Quinnipiac poll suggested they might. Exit polls showed that 35 percent of voters did not consider the sexual misconduct allegations against Moore an important deciding factor in their vote, and 19 percent considered them a minor factor (as opposed to 34 percent that considered the accusations one of several deciding factors and 7 percent that considered them the most important factor); 43 percent of those voting did not believe the sexual misconduct allegations whatsoever.
The majority of those who identified as conservatives—as well as the majority of white men and women regardless of education level—voted for Moore. Republican responses to the Quinnipiac poll, and, to an even greater extent, their voting record in the Alabama election, are consistent with the GOP party leadership’s softer stance toward sexual harassment and assault accusations against their politicians, as demonstrated by not just the party’s endorsement of Roy Moore in 2017, but indeed, of Donald Trump in 2016.
Elections only happen so often, and even when they do, especially for white voters, it seems that partisan politics can trump morals. So, if voters are only an occasional and unreliable check on sexual misconduct by politicians, what can be done for both the survivors of sexual assault, as well as for the majority of Americans who believe in accountability for the perpetrators? Elected officials on both sides of the aisle in Congress are beginning to respond to their constituents through legislation.
Congressional Anti-Harassment Legislation
Shortly before Franken’s sexual assault allegations broke the news, Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) introduced the Senate Anti-Harassment Training Resolution of 2017 on November 9 (S. Resolution 330). The legislation aims to update the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act (CAA) in requiring that all senators, members of staff, and interns must now publicly display that they have undergone mandatory sexual assault and harassment training within sixty days of beginning work at the Senate. It also requires all senators and staffers to repeat the training at least once every two years.
“Workplace harassment is a widespread problem that affects too many men and women in too many places, professions, and industries. Congress is not immune to this,” Klobuchar said. With nineteen bipartisan cosponsors—eleven Republicans, seven Democrats, and one independent—the resolution was unanimously passed within two days. On November 14, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) announced that the House would follow suit with an updated sexual harassment training policy.
The trainings alone are not enough. In a 2016 study, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) found that workplace anti-harassment initiatives are often trivialized or ignored—if they are not a part of a holistic strategy committed to eradicating harassment that permeates the entire workplace. The EEOC recommended bystander intervention techniques that have been met with success on college campuses, such as the Green Dot program or the It’s On Us campaign. As Rice University professor Eden King told TIME, the factors surrounding the trainings that influence workplace culture are pivotal—specifically, when leaders are present for trainings and openly endorse them, their employees tend to be more invested in the experience.
The congressional trainings would be further solidified in two pieces of legislation that may be able to shift the broader culture around sexual misconduct on the Hill: the Congressional Sexual Harassment Training Act (H.R. 4155), a bipartisan piece of legislation sponsored by Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-MI); and the Member and Employee Training and Oversight On (ME TOO) Congress Act (H.R. 4396), a bipartisan bill introduced by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) on November 15.
H.R. 4155—currently awaiting a vote in the House Judiciary Committee—would ensure that the training requirement that Ryan announced would be repeated for subsequent Congresses.
The ME TOO Congress Act is in the first stage of the legislative process in the House; Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) has introduced the Senate version, S. 2159, which is in the committee stage.
The Need for the ME TOO Congress Act
Similar to the anti-harassment training legislation, the ME TOO Congress Act would require trainings for congressional staffers and interns. But most critically, it would also discontinue the mandatory mediation policy put forth by the 1995 CAA that requires survivors to go through months of counseling and mediation as part of the complaint process before they can file lawsuits. Settlements reached through mediation under CAA are currently paid out of a designated Treasury Department fund, or out of members’ office budgets, seemingly with no transparency. As it turns out, Rep. Conyers paid a settlement out of his budget to a former employee after she accused him of sexual harassment—then listed the payment as severance. Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-TX) made a similar settlement payment out of his fund; and while Farenthold hasn’t resigned, he has announced that he won’t seek re-election. Most recently, Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-PA)—a Congress member who has worked to investigate sexual misconduct on the House Ethics Committee—was accused of making unwanted romantic advances toward a staffer and ultimately made a settlement out of his office fund. He has since been removed from the Ethics Committee.
What is particularly problematic under the current rules is that with the CAA, Congress passed a law that exempts it from the practices of typical employers: there is no alternative course of action through which survivors can bring attackers who work in Congress to justice. Accusers can only bring their cases to court if the mediation process is deemed unsuccessful. Furthermore, these disputes can then be made public only if the court rules in the survivor’s favor, and only after the proceedings have concluded.
As Speier has remarked, “It is not a victim-friendly process. It is an institution-protection process.” The current mediation rules have generally resulted in offenders avoiding charges, and has contributed to a culture of silence surrounding sexual harassment on the Hill.
The ME TOO Congress Act is a first step toward long-overdue change. In holding politicians accountable within their own chambers, members of Congress have the opportunity to create a standard of intolerance toward sexual misconduct that just might be able to transcend party lines, represent the majority of constituents, and provide justice to assault survivors after years of protecting their attackers.
Cover Image: Women’ s March 2018. Source: Mike Gifford/Flickr.