On Tuesday, Buzzfeed revealed that in 2015, Congressman John Conyers, the ranking Democrat and former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, reached a settlement with a former staffer who claimed he’d fired her after she refused to “succumb to (his) sexual advances.” As part of the staffer’s complaint, four other staffers filed affidavits stating that Conyers made passes at them and carried on affairs. Conyers denies any wrongdoing, but paid the staffer just over $27,000 out of his office budget.
In all likelihood, this report has ended the career of Conyers, the longest-serving member of the House and the sole surviving member of the massive Democratic freshman class that was swept into office on the back of Lyndon Johnson’s landslide. Conyers insists he won’t resign, but Daily Kos and much of the liberal blogosphere have already turned on him, and it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which he will get to see a 28th term.
However, Buzzfeed’s report also did something else. It shone a hot light on the manner in which Congress handles sexual assault complaints. And it’s nothing short of a national embarrassment.
We already got an inkling that Congress was a toxic place to work when Congressman Tim Murphy was pushed out in the wake of many of his former staffers coming forward to say how he mistreated him. As it turned out, it was an open secret on Capitol Hill that Murphy was hell to work for. However, no one felt safe reporting Murphy to the Congressional Office of Compliance, the closest thing Capitol Hill has to an HR department, for fear that it would wreck their careers.
In an environment like that, it would have come as no surprise that Congress’ process for handling sexual harassment complaints would be less than inadequate. Indeed, a week before this scandal broke, The Young Turks described the situation as a time bomb waiting to go off. Watch here.
After seeing what Conyers’ former staffer had to endure, it looks like The Young Turks were on to something. A staffer who believes he or she has been harassed has 180 days to report it to the Office of Compliance. But as anyone who has been sexually assaulted knows, it can take years for a victim to feel comfortable about speaking up–especially if the perpetrator is a celebrity or a powerful politician.
ThinkProgress shed more light on how this process works. After reporting the incident, the staffer must go through 30 days of counseling in order to have “an opportunity to assess his/her case.” No one else–not even the alleged perpetrator–is notified. After going through counseling, the staffer has 15 days to request mandatory mediation “to resolve the dispute.” If the staffer opts for mediation, that lasts for at least 30 days. Even then, the mediation doesn’t formally involve the lawmaker, but the lawmaker’s office.
After mediation, the staffer has 90 days to file a formal complaint with the Office of Compliance or file a case in federal court. However, that time limit is actually 60 days, since there is a mandatory 30-day “cooling-off” period. If the staffer opts for a hearing, the respondent is the lawmaker’s office, not the lawmaker. If the accuser wins, any award is paid with taxpayer dollars, and he or she is not entitled to civil penalties or punitive damages. The hearings are confidential, and the proceedings are only made public if the accuser wins.
If he staffer opts to sue, that proceeding is of course public. However, he or she can’t sue the lawmaker, but only the lawmaker’s office. If the victim wins, any award is paid with taxpayer dollars. Even then, the victim can’t collect any civil penalties or punitive damages, meaning that filing a lawsuit usually isn’t worth the financial or emotional heartache. That usually leads staffers who have been harassed to opt for an administrative hearing, as Conyers’ victim did.
Ultimately, the victim felt she had no option but to take the settlement, as she felt “basically blackballed.” Matthew Peterson, a law clerk who represented the victim, called the entire process “disgusting” and “a designed cover-up.”
That’s being kind to it. There is something fundamentally wrong when a staffer can be harassed, and it can be at least 90 days before anyone knows there may be a predator lurking in the halls of Congress.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Congresswoman Jackie Speier are working to change that. A week before the Conyers settlement broke, they introduced legislation that would make counseling and mediation optional, and require that hearings be completed within 180 days of a complaint being filed. Under this legislation, complaints can be filed anonymously, While it still sets a 180-day deadline for filing complaints, it stands to reason that more victims will come forward if they know they have fewer hoops to jump through. A lawmaker would be required to pay any settlement and award out of his or her own pocket.
The bill also requires all lawmakers and staffers to undergo anti-harassment training. Speaker Paul Ryan has already implemented that requirement for all House members and staffers. Hopefully he will put his money where his mouth is and lend his support to this bill. This is not partisan, and should not be partisan.
(featured image courtesy Scrumshus, part of public domain)