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Three Lessons From How Congress Is Handling Sexual Misconduct Allegations

The sexual harassment allegations against Michigan congressman John Conyers and the groping accusations against Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, both Democrats, have brought the issues around sexual misconduct that have rocked other industries to Capitol Hill. The Senate candidacy of Alabama’s Roy Moore, accused of harassing or assaulting women as young as age 14, has forced congressional Republicans to grapple with sexual misconduct allegations as well.

The claims again Moore were first reported on Nov. 9, nearly a month ago. The Franken allegations emerged a week later and were followed by those against Conyers on Nov. 20. So what have we learned about how Congress deals with sexual misconduct allegations?

1. Capitol Hill is moving more slowly than the private sector.

So far, the most general lesson is that Congress is acting slower than many of the entities in the private sector that have had high-profile employees accused of sexual harassment. CBS News fired host Charlie Rose a day after a Washington Post story detailed the accusations against him. NBC News dumped Matt Lauer even before news outlets published the stories they were working on.

In comparison, both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate have emphasized that the chamber’s ethics committees should conduct a formal investigation into the Franken allegations and haven’t asked him to resign. And even though Democrats have been more critical of Conyers than of Franken, it took time for leaders to push for a harsher penalty. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi described the congressman as an “icon” in an interview before joining others in calling for him to resign a few days later.

2. Both parties are willing to take on their own.

We can say that, broadly, both Republican and Democratic members of Congress have been willing to take on a member of their own party who has been accused of sexual misconduct. Conyers probably would not have given up his role as the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee if he had felt his colleagues wanted him there. Similarly, Senate Republicans have withdrawn their endorsements of Moore.

That’s not to say there aren’t differences among the reactions to the cases. For one, the informal leader of the Republican Party, President Trump, has suggested that he is not sure whether Moore’s numerous accusers are telling the truth and has essentially endorsed him. And it’s probably a bigger step for Democrats to call for the resignation of a sitting member of Congress than for Republicans to oppose the election of a candidate. (Some Senate Republicans have suggested that they will look to expel Moore from the chamber if he is elected.)

3. There are different standards for different members.

Despite the calls for Conyers’s resignation from within his party, no Democratic senator has called for Franken to step down. One reason for the disparate treatment of Conyers and Franken may be that there’s a perception that the allegations against the former are more severe than those against the latter.

BuzzFeed obtained documents from the settlement of a lawsuit in which one of Conyers’s former aides described numerous incidents of sexual advances. Three other former staffers signed affidavits corroborating the woman’s account. A second woman who used to work for the Michigan congressman filed a lawsuit accusing Conyers of repeated sexual advances, although she later withdrew it. Another one-time Conyers staffer described to the Detroit News several sexual advances by Conyers. A fourth woman, former senior staffer Melanie Sloan, told The Washington Post that the congressman, while not sexual harassing her, had regularly made remarks about Sloan’s clothing and once asked her to meet him in his office, where she found him in his underwear.

In the case of Franken, there have been five allegations made publicly. A radio news anchor has described an unwanted kiss from the then-comedian and posted a photo of Franken smiling while he comes close to touching her breasts. Three other women have said Franken touched their butts while he posed for pictures with them, and a fourth said he cupped her breast while a photo was being taken of them during a USO tour.

A second factor in the disparate treatment might be institutional — namely, that the 48 Democrats and Democratic-leaning senators form a kind of club that protects its own, while some of the 194 Democrats in the House are more willing to break with a fellow member.

A third (more cynical) view is that Democrats just don’t value Conyers as much as Franken politically. Conyers is 88, and some younger House Democrats say that the party’s elders (Pelosi is 77) have held power for too long and should cede their positions to a new generation. These younger members were not eager to defend Conyers, and a few of them called for his resignation before Pelosi did. Also, the House Judiciary Committee is a high-profile post and could become even more so after 2018 if Democrats win control of the House because that committee could play a big role in an impeachment process, as it did in the 1970s against Richard Nixon. Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York is taking over Conyers’s role on that committee and might be a better spokesman for the party in taking on Trump. Finally, Hillary Clinton won Conyers’s majority-black Detroit-area district by 61 percentage points in 2016, so a Democrat is nearly certain to win the election to replace Conyers. Pushing him out has no real political risk.

In contrast, the 66-year-old Franken was considered a rising star among Senate Democrats. In Franken’s role on the Senate Judiciary Committee, his questions to Jeff Sessions and Neil Gorsuch during their confirmation hearings were among the sharpest asked by Democrats. If Franken steps down, he would be replaced in the short term by whomever is chosen by Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat. But there would be a special election in November 2018 to fill the seat, and while Minnesota leans left, Trump lost to Clinton by just 2 percentage points there in 2016. A Republican could certainly win if Franken’s seat came open.

It’s important to emphasize that we have a very limited sample size here. But I do expect members of Congress to continue to be more reluctant to press for resignations of their colleagues than private sector companies have been because this has been a bipartisan pattern. And I expect members to be pushed out at a slower rate than people in other industries accused of sexual harassment for a simple reason: One person (the NBC News president) can fire Lauer, while the removal of a member of Congress requires a vote by two-thirds of the members in whichever chamber he serves in.

And we will likely face at least two new dynamics in Washington that could complicate how Congress handles these issues. One, a victory by Moore and his arrival in Congress amid the lurid allegations against him would be hard for the Senate to ignore — but it might be politically difficult to expel a member who was just elected. And two, in this environment, it’s easy to imagine that more accusations will be made against members and that more settlements of sexual harassment claims will emerge publicly.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.


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