December 11, 2017 37th and O

A Concerned Call to Examine Election Standards and Congress’s Sexual Misconduct Formal Procedures

by Marie Swain

Roy Moore. Harvey Weinstein. Al Franken. Louis C.K. John Conyers. Matt Lauer. And even our own president, Donald Trump.
Sexual misconduct allegations have been spreading like wildfire across our nation, from Hollywood to the Capitol, catching powerful men in its flames. New names seem to be added daily, and Vice News has even started an ongoing list to keep track of the number of allegations solely against Congressmen.

What’s sadly ironic is that sexual misconduct in politics is a bipartisan issue. Claims have been charged against politicians from both sides of the political aisle, clearly demonstrating that sexual misconduct is far from simply being a political problem facing only one party. The testimonies we have heard week after week by brave women who have come forward to tell their stories have highlighted the role society and our institutions play in privileging those in positions of power and reinforcing an environment where sexual misconduct is merely discounted and/or disregarded.

“I believe the women,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in November after a fifth woman accused Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore of sexual harassment. Moore also faces allegations of advances on teenage girls, but continues to deny all charges and refuses to drop from the race, with his campaign asserting that the women are telling politically motivated lies. The Alabama Republican Party remains behind Moore, as well as the Republican National Committee, who reversed its original stance against the candidate this week, to the dismay of Senate Republicans. Now, with the election only days away on December 12th, the polls show a close race.

This is an absurd situation. A man who may-very-well-be a child molester could be elected to Congress. While Alabama voters will get to decide Moore’s fate, I must call into question the increasingly lower standards we seem to hold for our elected officials in this country. Where do we draw the line? How many women must come forward with sexual misconduct allegations against a single man to finally be believed? And why does the letter behind a candidate’s name on the ballot matter when such serious moral concerns are on the table?

However, we have yet to even look at the formal proceedings Congress has in place for when a Congressman has been accused of sexual misconduct. As I learned while listening to a podcast from The Daily a few weeks ago, the process is hidden from public view, and can drag on for as long as three months. First, the individual with the allegation against a member in Congress must submit a “request for counseling” at the Office of Compliance, and undergo 30 days of mandatory counseling. Then, after an initial assessment of the situation, the victim is “required to sign a non-disclosure agreement” to begin 30 days of confidential mediation with the accused official. According to The Daily, 40-50% of cases settle during this period. If the individual would instead like to continue on and make an official complaint in federal court or request an appeal, they must wait another 30 days in a “cooling-off period” before filing.

This is not to even mention that the employee must continue to work in the office of the accused member of Congress during the whole proceeding, possibly going forward without a lawyer if they cannot afford one, while taxpayers pay for a government lawyer to represent the accused Congress member. In addition, taxpayers end up footing the bill if a settlement is reached.
And, if the whole bureaucratic and unpleasant process was not enough, complaints are required to be initiated no later than 180 days after the event occurred.

These are the current rules on Capitol Hill.

This system discourages victims from going forward, especially ones who may not have the financial means to go through which such a process, and has been described as a “retraumatizing experience” by former accusers. There is an extreme lack of transparency and accountability, and provides no incentive for victims to attempt any kind of justice, especially when the costs may outweigh the benefits for some.

Yet, there is hope for the future. Last month, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Representative Jackie Speier of California introduced a bill called the Member and Employee Training and Oversight On Congress Act (“ME TOO” Congress Act) with bipartisan support to reform the current system. This piece of legislation would set up optionally confidential proceedings, leaving reporting up to the survivor, require the offices of the members of Congress to foot the bill of the settlements, instead of taxpayers, and would publish all settlements paid out on the website for the Office of Compliance.

Passing “ME TOO” would be a leap in the right direction toward creating a country that takes sexual misconduct seriously. I am in strong agreement with Gillibrand that “there is no place for sexual harassment in our society…especially in Congress.” We must consider the current systems we have in place for sexual misconduct allegations and make sure they do more to protect survivors than those in positions of power. If there are age requirements for Congress, why should there not also be ethical and moral requirements for such high-level elected positions?

Sexual misconduct in politics is a bipartisan issue, and needs bipartisan support from men and women legislators in order to be an effective force for change not only in the halls of Congress, but in greater American society.

I hope you join me, too, in this fight for justice.

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