Congress Struggling To Create Zero Tolerance Sexual Harassment Policy

Nov 29, 2017
Originally published on November 29, 2017 5:25 pm
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Allegations of sexual harassment against lawmakers, like longtime Michigan Democratic congressman John Conyers, have revealed some uncomfortable realities on Capitol Hill. The first is a secretive system that lets lawmakers use taxpayer money to pay out sexual harassment claims. And it's also highlighting a culture that many in Congress say puts a priority on protecting people in power. NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis reports on how lawmakers are struggling with how to change their own workplace.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Party leaders like House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley say this is a place that should set the bar for how American workplaces operate.

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JOE CROWLEY: I believe that Congress should be not the gold standard but the platinum standard. We should be a beacon on a hill to say that sexual harassment or harassment of any kind is not acceptable in the workplace anywhere.

DAVIS: That's a pretty clear-cut answer. But when asked if lawmakers like Conyers should resign over multiple allegations of sexual harassment, that answer isn't as easy.

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CROWLEY: Well, we've - we have a - calling for the resignation of someone does not actually create the resignation. So the reality is we have a process in place, and we're calling for an expedited process of the Ethics Committee.

DAVIS: The Ethics Committee is now looking into the allegations included in a settled 2015 complaint. In it, a female staffer alleged she was fired for refusing Conyers' sexual advances. She was paid $27,000 out of Conyers' office budget, and Conyers denied any wrongdoing as part of the settlement. Democrats are calling for a fast ethics conclusion, but that's not how the process is designed to work. These inquiries can take months, sometimes years, before the committee can issue a final report. But without it, Democrats like California Congresswoman Linda Sanchez aren't willing to say whether Conyers should stay or go.

LINDA SANCHEZ: I can't sit and judge a member and call for their resignation unless there has - you know, unless I've been party to hearing all of the evidence and hearing the defense of the evidence.

DAVIS: In the meantime, Congress is considering legislation to overhaul the system that oversaw Conyers' settlement. The current policy is shrouded in secrecy and does not require any disclosure of which lawmakers have settled claims. Even the speaker of the House isn't told. House Administration Chairman Gregg Harper wants answers. His committee will hold a hearing next week on how the settlement process works. The committee is investigating how many lawmakers have personally been involved in claims since the system was established 20 years ago.

GREGG HARPER: This cannot be tolerated in the future and to know that the House of Representatives is a great institution and the highest honor that any of the members have ever had in their lives is to serve here.

DAVIS: Harper's oversight is part of a review ordered by Speaker Paul Ryan. As part of that effort, the House today approved a rules change to now mandate annual sexual harassment training for everyone, including lawmakers. Ryan told reporters there should be zero tolerance for harassment.

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PAUL RYAN: We cannot and we will not tolerate that kind of behavior.

DAVIS: But compared to the swift firings of other high-profile men, like NBC's Matt Lauer and Minnesota Public Radio's Garrison Keillor just today, politics does seem like a place that will tolerate that kind of behavior. No candidate or lawmaker facing these allegations, including Republican Roy Moore in Alabama and Minnesota Democratic senator Al Franken, has stepped down. Of course, no one person can fire a politician. They are ultimately hired and fired by their voters. But Michigan Democratic congresswoman Debbie Dingell says that lawmakers could face a reckoning if they don't meet this cultural moment.

DEBBIE DINGELL: Anybody who was home last week and doesn't understand that the time for change right now is real isn't going to get re-elected.

DAVIS: Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Cedric Richmond disputed reports that his caucus was privately urging Conyers to step down.

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CEDRIC RICHMOND: We think that is a decision for him and his family and his constituents to make.

DAVIS: Conyers flew home to Detroit Tuesday night. His office has not said when he plans to return to Washington. Susan Davis, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.