Congress must investigate pandemic sexual harassment, including claims against Trump

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders takes the podium for a news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House November 17, 2017 in Washington, DC. Huckabee fielded questions about sexual harassment allegations against Judge Roy Moore, Sen. Al Franken and President Donald Trump.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders takes the podium for a news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House November 17, 2017 in Washington, DC. Huckabee fielded questions about sexual harassment allegations against Judge Roy Moore, Sen. Al Franken and President Donald Trump. Getty Images

Given the pace of sexual harassment and abuse complaints against sitting members of Congress, the House and Senate ethics committees should staff up. They are likely to be busy over the next year.

Beyond the individual cases of impropriety, however, lies the broader, horrifying scourge of sexual harassment and abuse in federal and state government. What do we do about the growing list of complaints against specific officeholders and candidates? What are Republicans to do about the leader of their party, an alleged sexual predator?

As to the latter, the GOP is struggling. The sight of Republicans fanning out on the Sunday shows, refusing to criticize the president for embracing Roy Moore, was a sickening spectacle. Sens. Tim Scott, R-S.C., Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Lindsey Graham , R-S.C., managed to state their opposition to Moore, a Republican, for the open Senate seat in Alabama, but they couldn’t say whether President Donald Trump’s stance was wrong, damaging to the party or corrosive of Trump’s standing. Really, are they so frightened of a failing president, himself accused by multiple women of sexual assault and harassment, that they cannot bring themselves to repudiate the latest new low in a presidency filled with moral and political outrage? The GOP’s new moniker could be “accused sexual predator refuge” where “no mistreatment of women or children is too great to prevent a vote for tax cuts.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., had her own troubles on “Meet the Press,” declining to express a view about the accusations against Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich. But, unlike Republicans, Democrats have embraced investigations of their party’s accused sexual offenders - Conyers and Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn. - by the ethics committees in the House and Senate. Conyers went a step further in stepping down temporarily as ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee. Moreover, it cannot be stressed enough that although Franken’s alleged conduct is unacceptable, it is in an entirely different moral universe from Moore’s and Trump’s alleged actions. (Lost in the rush to “whataboutism,” one should acknowledge that zero tolerance does not mean equal punishment. Based on what we know now, Franken’s conduct could well meet the bar for censure but not expulsion.)

Now, Portman, the chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee), did say on Sunday that he’d be willing to disclose the now-confidential terms of congressional sexual harassment settlement agreements. That’s a start, but he needs to do much more than that. He and his subcommittee need to do their jobs. The committee’s jurisdiction is extraordinarily wide:

The Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations is the Committee’s chief investigative subcommittee and has the responsibility of studying and investigating the efficiency and economy of operations relating to all branches of the government. The Subcommittee is also tasked with studying and investigating the compliance or noncompliance with rules, regulations and laws, investigating all aspects of crime and lawlessness within the United States which have an impact upon or affect the national health, welfare and safety, including syndicated crime, investment fraud schemes, commodity and security fraud, computer fraud, and the use of offshore banking and corporate facilities to carry out criminal objectives.

Surely, sexual harassment and predation negatively affect the efficiency of all branches of government and harm the “national health, welfare and safety.” Portman should announce expansive hearings into the issue – including Trump’s alleged sexual misconduct toward women (and his party’s tolerance of such alleged conduct), the effectiveness of workplace training, statutes of limitation for sexual assault charges and standards for expelling members of Congress. The country could benefit from a full accounting of the extent of the problem, the degree to which it has become a fixture in government and electoral politics, and recommendations for addressing it. These recommendations could include outlawing the use of settlements that bar discussion of a complainant’s sexual harassment experience; adding provisions to existing civil rights legislation to punish those who help facilitate harassment; barring government contractors with a pattern of sexual harassment complaints; and enhancing federal ethics rules.

Portman in some ways is the ideal person to take this on. He won reelection in 2016 by more than 20 points and has plenty of political capital to use. If he doesn’t do this now, the consequences for Republicans in 2018 and beyond could be far worse. If and when Democrats take the majority in the House and/or Senate, they certainly would not hesitate to act along these lines. If Democrats are savvy, they may run next year on the promise to undertake just such an inquiry and to implement a zero-tolerance policy. (Democrats also should consider a party rule refusing any candidate its nomination for House, Senate or president unless and until any credible complaints of sexual assault against a candidate are fully investigated.) A political party can set whatever rules it likes and demand that its candidates and existing officeholders meet a high standard for behavior. We know one thing - the GOP cannot clean house and meet a morally acceptable standard as long as it supports Moore and Trump.

The head of the GOP and the entire White House (see Kellyanne Conway’s cheering for Moore, a likely violation of the Hatch Act, according to ethics experts) are now committed to defending a Senate candidate accused of acts of child sexual predation from multiple, credible women. We have “no reason to doubt” Moore’s accusers, says the attorney general, and yet the president is ready to welcome Moore into the Senate. Republicans can’t bring themselves to object to the (further) debasement of the presidency.

The bigger problem is that the rest of the party – including House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. – stands behind a president accused of acts of sexual misconduct by multiple, credible women. If we have no reason to doubt Moore’s accusers, why would the party have any reason to doubt Trump’s accusers? The GOP will have its hands full trying to make a distinction.

Ideally, both major political parties should bar sexual harassers and abusers from office and decline to support them for reelection if they are already there. If only Democrats could manage that appallingly low standard (no sexual predators in office), at least we will know which party provides them a refuge. The GOP shows no sign of setting anything close to a zero-tolerance standard, and it can’t as long as it is in Trump’s thrall.

WP Bloomberg