As if members of Congress don’t have enough on their minds between passing a massively unpopular tax cut for the rich and averting a government shutdown before Christmas, they’re also plagued by rumors that a forthcoming report will unveil sexual-misconduct allegations against many lawmakers from both parties.
Nothing else about rumor is consistent. Sometimes Politico is the major outlet working on the story, and other times it’s CNN or the New York Times. The exposé will name around two dozen members, or perhaps as many as 50. If predictions of a Democratic wave in 2018 pan out, a scandal of that size could help Republicans lose Congress.
That is, if it’s true. For all we know the report may be a joke that got twisted as it was passed around, but it’s telling that in this post-Weinstein moment it seems plausible. In the past month the political careers of six members of Congress — Senator Al Franken and Representatives Joe Barton, John Conyers, Ruben Kihuen, Trent Franks, and Blake Farenthold — have been cut short by allegations of sexual impropriety. Of course, there’s also Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore’s defeat in Alabama, and last week the “reckoning” saw its first female casualty, Democratic Kansas congressional candidate Andrea Ramsey.
It seems highly unlikely that the scandal will end there, and Politico reports that the rumored mega-exposé has created a feeling of paranoia among members of Congress and their staffers. “In the past week alone, at least four lawmakers have asked Politico whether the bombshell story is real,” the outlet reported. And real or not, it’s having a concrete impact in D.C.:
Aides in one Democrat’s office were summoned recently to a meeting organized by a fellow staffer and asked whether they’d ever heard of an accusation against their boss, according to a source in the room. Other press secretaries have asked their bosses about any personal skeletons, wanting to unearth possible sexual land mines before they detonate in the media.
The pervasive apprehension that’s taken hold risks adversely affecting some women’s careers. One Republican aide told Politico that she is advising members not to be alone with any women — whether they’re female staffers or female reporters.
Last week’s attempt to plant a fake story about Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer left lawmakers even more on edge. “I think this environment is pretty crazy right now,” Senator Lindsey Graham said, adding, “What happened to Senator Schumer is a concern to a lot of us.”
Graham added that Congress needs “a welcome environment to report abuse,” but also “enough due process and scrutiny to make sure it’s accurate.”
Other members of Congress are coming around to the idea that a system seemingly designed to protect lawmakers — a secretive, convoluted process that can result in large taxpayer-funded settlements — is actually bad for both victims and the accused.
For instance, both Representative Alcee Hastings and Winsome Packer, a former congressional staffer, maintain that they were wronged in the handling of Packer’s accusations of sexual harassment, according to NBC News. In 2011 Packer filed complaints against Hastings with the Office of Compliance and the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. She called the process that followed “worse than the harassment.” George Chuzi, her attorney at the time, said the House lawyers were “unbelievably aggressive” and quickly accused her of being a “liar and an extortionist.”
In 2014 the federal court dismissed the case with prejudice, and the House Ethics Committee concluded that aside from some unprofessional comments by Hastings, there was not enough evidence to support Packer’s claim.
Yet Packer still received a settlement of $220,000 in taxpayer funds in 2014. Hastings, who has denied the allegations, said he was not aware of the settlement agreement until it was reported earlier this month. “At no time was I consulted, nor did I know until after the fact that such a settlement was made,” he said.
On a local Wisconsin radio show last week, House Speaker Paul Ryan said that using taxpayer money to settle harassment claims is “indefensible,” and congressional committees are working on a “wholesale reform package” for handling harassment allegations.
Several members of congress have introduced legislation to change how such claims are reported. The latest came from Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who presented a bill on Thursday that has eight Republican co-sponsors, including Senator John Cornyn, the number-two Republican in the Senate. The bill would end mandatory counseling and mediation for accusers, require members of Congress to pay settlements themselves, and automatically make those payments public, unless the victim asks for the matter to remain private.
“Congress should never be above the law or play by their own set of rules,” Gillibrand said in a statement. “We should treat every person who works here with respect and dignity, and that means creating a climate where there is accountability, fairness, respect, and access to justice if sexual harassment takes place.”
It’s unclear when Congress will find time to fully address these proposed changes, but maybe some external event will move the task to the top of their list. We heard some media outlet is going to unveil misconduct allegations against some number of lawmakers any day now.