Where the abusers make the rules

November 29, 2017

Both of the two main political parties in Washington, D.C., are responsible for a political system that protects harassers and silences their victims, writes Elizabeth Schulte.

AFTER WOMEN stepped forward to tell their stories of how they had been sexually abused and harassed by members of Congress, it didn't take long for political leaders from both sides of the aisle to talk about how serious this all was.

But when the rules and regulations surrounding sexual assault allegations in Congress were finally made public, revealing all the ways that women are forced into silence, it became very clear that talk is cheap--and that neither of the two parties that rule in Washington are prepared to act with seriousness about sexual assault.

Confidentiality agreements that prevent women from speaking in public, a process that bars women from getting co-workers to corroborate evidence, secret settlements paid out of the federal treasury--all are part of a process where sexual assault claims never see the light of day, remaining confined to a rigged in-house system, with rules that Congress made up for itself.

Thanks to the #MeToo movement that began with women in the entertainment industry revealing producer Harvey Weinstein to be a sexual predator, accusations against men in positions of power are at least being taken seriously, including in Washington.

The House of Representatives
The House of Representatives

In politics, the spotlight has fallen mainly on Roy Moore, the bible-thumping Republican running for a crucial Senate seat from Alabama, and liberal favorite Al Franken, the senator from Minnesota.

When it was revealed that Moore had sexually assaulted and harassed women and girls who were teenagers at the time, some top Republicans called on Moore to step down as a Senate candidate--but plenty of others, including the sexual harasser-in-chief Donald Trump, circled the wagons around a fellow reactionary and joined in smearing the women who accused him.

Several women have also come forward with allegations against Franken, and the response among liberals was tellingly similar: Some suggested Franken should pay a price, but for others, the first concern was naked political calculation about giving the Republicans a further advantage in the Senate if Franken had to step down.

The Republican reactionaries have been more openly vile in their defense of Moore, but more than a few members of the Democratic Party--which claims to champion the oppressed against the horrible Republicans--stooped to slandering accusers to back up one of their own.

What unites the two parties' callous and cynical attitude toward sexual abuse in the corridors of power in Washington is a shared commitment to the status quo--something illustrated by the unsolvable maze that confronts anyone who dares to raise an allegation of sexual harassment or assault on Capitol Hill.

MOST WOMEN who work on Capitol Hill know little about the Office of Compliance, which is charged with adjudicating complaints, or about the twisted mess of rules and regulations it is supposed to follow.

A complaint must be filed with the office within 180 days of the incident. In order make an official complaint, the accuser must submit to mandatory counseling, which usually takes 30 days, and then, if they continue with their complaint, they must complete another 30 days of mediation.

During the mediation process, women must follow strict rules of secrecy, including agreeing to a non-disclosure agreement that bind victims from talking.

"The trappings of confidentiality, they permeate the process," Alexis Ronickher, an attorney who has represented several people pursuing harassment claims, told Politico. "The law is written to create a system to disincentivize staffers from coming forward."

Maybe "Office of Silence" would be a better name.

If mediation fails, the person must wait 30 more days before seeking an administrative hearing or filing a lawsuit in federal court against their harasser.

If there is a settlement, any financial award comes from a special U.S. Treasury fund. The Office of Compliance reports that it has paid out more than $17 million since 1997 to settle workplace disputes on Capitol Hill.

As Politico's Elana Schorr points out, there's no way to know how much was spent on sexual misconduct claims, because the $17 million includes payments over pay and workplace safety.

We also have no idea how much money has been spent by the offices of individual members of Congress, who may decide to settle harassment allegations using their own office budgets.

That was the case with a former aide who negotiated a settlement with Rep. John Conyers of Michigan--one of the most powerful Democrats in the House, with close relationships to the party's establishment--in 2015. Like Compliance Office payouts, these individual settlements are also funded by taxpayer money.

The identities of members of Congress or aides who reach settlements over misconduct allegations are kept secret--so there's no warning system for potential victims. During congressional testimony, Rep. Jackie Speier of California described the Compliance Office as "an enabler of sexual harassment."

"This is not a victim-friendly process," Speier said in an interview on ABC News' This Week. "One victim who I spoke with said, 'You know, the process was almost worse than the harassment.'"

SPEIER, WHO initiated a #MeTooCongress campaign at the end of October, also points to a larger problem of a work environment where sexual abuse is not only tolerated, but encouraged.

Only about 20 percent of members of Congress are women. Although almost half of congressional staffers are female, women are far more likely to hold lower-ranking positions, like office manager or constituent representative, than to serve as chief of staff or legislative director, according to FiveThirtyEight.org.

Men occupy the more powerful positions--and there are few positions more powerful than the office of senator or representative. "The power disparities in Congress are enormous," Debra Katz, an attorney who specializes in sexual harassment and has represented congressional aides, told FiveThirtyEight.org.

Katz pointed to a 2016 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission report that discussed "superstar harassers" or employees who are especially powerful or valuable to an organization, and therefore believe they are above the rules. "Members of Congress are, by definition, superstars," Katz said. "And many believe the rules do not apply to them."

For decades, sexual assault and harassment has been a sometimes open, sometimes closed secret on Capital Hill.

The Office of Compliance was put into effect as part of the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995--the year that Republican Sen. Bob Packwood of Oregon was forced to resign after multiple women stepped forward with allegations of sexual assault.

Two years before, amid several public allegations against Packwood, a Washington Post survey showed that one-third of female congressional employees said they were sexually harassed by members, supervisors, lobbyists or fellow aides.

Since then, there have been other high-profile cases, such as Florida Republican Rep. Mark Foley, who resigned in 2006 after it was revealed that he repeatedly made sexual advances to several congressional pages. The page program was suspended as a result.

But there were many more cases over the years that didn't seem to merit the front pages.

That changed with #MeToo. Since the campaign began with claims against Harvey Weinstein, dozens more women who work on Capital Hill have stepped forward to tell their stories and reveal the sexism that permeates the halls of government.

Some 1,500 former Capitol Hill aides signed an open letter to House and Senate leaders to demand that Congress put in place mandatory harassment training and revamp the Office of Compliance. Right now, training isn't mandatory and can be completed online--and only one employee at the Compliance Office is dedicated to in-person harassment training.

EVEN IF the rules are changed, a bigger problem remains, however--the fact that the people who hold government office act as if they are above the law.

That's because they are--the laws regarding Congress are mostly there to protect them from their victims, not the other way around. As a result, men who were known to be repeat offenders were given a pass, and the process itself kept women's stories hidden.

When allegations of misconduct do see the light of day, members of Congress and the media typically look at them through the lens of partisan political point-scoring, not as a wake-up call to the sexism that goes unconfronted in the halls of government.

It was certainly no surprise when a White House led by Donald Trump stood by Moore. But the behavior of liberals toward Franken--with column after of column of hand-wringing about whether to stand by him as a "lesser evil" to the Republicans--should especially anger anyone who cares about confronting sexism and sexual abuse.

Both political parties are showing themselves incapable of taking on the sexism that permeates the Washington political system. It was the millions of women stepping forward to say #MeToo that even forced a conversation about sexual harassment in Congress--out in public, where it should be.

As Briony Whitehouse, who was a 19-year-old intern when she was groped in an elevator by a Republican senator in 2003, told the Washington Post: "At the time, I didn't know what to do, so I did nothing at all. Because this happened so early on for me, I just assumed this was the way things worked, and that I'd have to accept it."

She doesn't accept it anymore, and neither should anyone else.

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