Roundtable – Sexual Harassment in Congress

Tom Rich, Editor-in-Chief
Welcome to the Roundtable, Torchlight’s discussion of news and events. The news has been awash over the last few months with powerful men stepping down due to sexual harassment allegations. Congress hasn’t been immune, with Senator Al Franken and Representatives John Conyers and Trent Franks announcing their resignations, and several other members facing allegations. I don’t have a particular question to open this one up with, so let’s open it up wide to the panel and go from there: what’s your take on the spate of resignations from Congress?

David Spitzley, Contributing Writer
I want to note for readers that we were unsure whether we felt comfortable convening a bunch of dudes to discuss sexual harassment, but we agreed it’s too important not to discuss it. That said, we’re quite interested in bringing a broader perspective on this and all other topics, so feel free to contact us at our Get Involved link if you’re interested in writing for us and getting involved with the Roundtables.

Josh Kyu Saiewitz, Senior Managing Editor
“Let justice be done, though the heavens fall”

Christopher Dahlin, Politics Editor
I am hoping this is a turning point in our society, but who knows. What used to be acceptable and hidden seems to be not any longer. Is this finally a sign that the “Good Old Days” are going? Hopefully. I think that clearing this stuff out can only be good, even if people like Franken have done good things. I will admit that I was originally hesitant that he should resign, but I think it’s becoming clearer to me that past good deeds do not ameliorate a history of abusing power.
Of course, we see on Tuesday how far that goes

Tom
I agree generally with you guys. When Franken had one accuser, who had accepted his apology and didn’t want him to resign, I was fine with him sticking around; once it the rest emerged, though, it was the right thing to step down. My hope is that, by making it clear that this kind of nonsense isn’t going to get covered up anymore, we’ll both see more women trying their hand at politics, and men who were hesitant because they didn’t want to be involved in such a sleazy business. I’m skeptical that the heavens will fall on this one, though it’s obviously hard to predict from the outside.

Sam Dieffenwierth, Researcher
The heavens are certainly falling outside of Congress, that’s for sure. It’d be nice if the media came down as hard on Congressional graft as sexual harassment, but beggars can’t be choosers. All in all, a good thing.

Tom
Consensus among the team, then, that we’re happy to see handsy legislators move on down the line. The obvious follow-up question, Congress-wise, is what the political fallout is going to be as careers come to an end and seats open up. Two questions: is that a question we should be asking, or does it cheapen the whole national discussion going on around sexual harassment and assault? And, assuming we don’t conclude it’s gross to even ask, what’s the fallout of Franken, Franks, and Conyers?

Josh
Politics is important–it’s not just a game, the lives and livelihoods of many citizens are on the line. But so is this new social movement to redefine the boundaries of acceptable behavior and change the way we address accusations. So far the two have not been strictly in conflict for Democrats; we have not yet fully been tested. Republicans, on the other hand, have had multiple tests and failed them all, from Trump to Moore to Farenthold and others. I don’t think it’s gross to talk about the political consequences here, and I think the political consequences are a widening of the severe divide between parties, as one continues to move however reluctantly into the future and the other steadfastly refuses to progress.

Christo
If we don’t strategise (and I mean that generally, not that I am connected to a legislator or party) the other side will and have the advantage. It’s not crass to try to capitalize an opponent’s screw up, or try to neutralize an ally’s. Especially with politics. This is too important. Hopefully, the fallout is that people stop doing this crap, actually. Stop treating people lower than them (women and men) as fodder for their desires. More women in positions of power, both in government and the corporate world, would be excellent. We are seeing the middle stages of the ship of society turning toward something acceptable, hopefully.

Tom
Josh, you point out the Democrats haven’t been fully tested by this yet. So far they’ve lost Conyers and Franken. Conyers will be replaced by a Democrat by double-digit margins, in all likelihood; Franken will have a replacement appointed by a Democratic governor, and Minnesota is a reasonably blue state. The danger of losing seats for those two stepping down was fairly low. But suppose it had been somebody in a marginal seat like West Virginia? Does that Senator still step down, even though there’s a strong chance that the Democrats lose the seat, with all the impacts on the lives and livelihoods of many citizens that losing it entails?
(I want to make doubly-clear that Democratic West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin isn’t accused of anything at this time; I’m just using his seat as an example of a marginally Democratic seat.)

Josh
I don’t know the answer to that, honestly. I think at minimum the DNC would stop supporting that senator and start supporting an opponent for the next primary. But I think, as they were with Franken early on, the party would be pretty heavily conflicted on whether or not that person should resign and throw the Senate to the GOP, given the stakes involved. Ultimately it’s a Catch-22, because the Democratic party has to be twice as good to get votes, has to prove itself to the women who make up the backbone of the party, so protecting an abuser for political reasons is likely to come back to bite the party politically anyway. As painful as it is, I think that senator would be pressured to resign. But it might take the party a little while to get through that train of logic.

Christo
And this is where the pernicious poison of politics lies. Should you wait until after the crucial vote, or do you hold you principles, but lose the policy war? Historically, the answer has always been the former, but I don’t know if that is acceptable anymore. Part of the problem is that the people in Washington are there because of their focus on policy (whether it’s to actually achieve something or just kill the government or anywhere in between) So no matter who they are as human beings (and whether they understand what surrogacy actually is) they are here for a purpose, and they are serving with people who also are here for a purpose. Their colleagues are sympathetic to smoothing over flaws to get things done.
At the end of the day, though, I agree with Josh. We have to be better, even if it sucks in the short run. Eventually we as a party and a people will get the point. Hopefully.

Sam
It is definitely a question that should be asked- simply because you can bet the other side’s already asking it. If you take a week off from planning replacements that’s a week of election time you’ve given up. The only thing cheapening the ongoing massacre of the powerful and hithertofore immune is their sycophants chiming in with “wait let’s not be so hasty” in editorials. Franken will be missed. Franks will be immediately replaced with Generic GOP Congressman #208, and Conyers was a gross man who forced his staff to chauffeur and babysit for him. They will not be missed.

Josh
I don’t think the other side is asking that question so much as they’ve answered it. It doesn’t help that the allegations against Moore and Trump are the most heinous of anyone we’ve discussed here. And yet the Republican party isn’t wrestling with its decision; in both instances, they had a period of denouncement, followed by sincere reconciliation. Nobody today says “Trump is still a disgusting human being and it’s a shame we need him to appoint judges, but the women he assaulted are worth the unborn babies he’ll save if another SCOTUS judge bites the dust.” Evangelicals, and right wing voters in general, simply decided that the morality of their candidates didn’t matter, that the women were lying, and that nothing need be discussed, let alone done, about the monsters in their tribe. We’ve seen who they are, and no matter what happens in the Alabama election, the numbers are going to be damning–or would be, if this party wasn’t already damned.

Christo
Don’t forget the pearl clutching (senator Scott has already announced an Ethics investigation “if he wins” and others in Congress have denounced Moore) while their party still supports him. It is unfortunate that there have been a few missteps along the way, but it simply shows that all women have to be perfect all the time to be considered “legitimate” victims, and I think we’re going to see a continuation of that. The Child Predator may lose, but it is still a knife’s edge. Hopefully people remember that Alabama should never be a fight in a million years, and people don’t get discouraged. The next federal election is 11 months away! Volunteer, Donate, and above all, Vote!

Josh
I want to talk briefly about how concerning it is that we don’t have any kind of process in place for this stuff.
Either the public judges a set of accusations to be numerous and credible enough for the accused to immediately lose their position, or they don’t; and while we’ve seen that fail in one direction (Republicans refusing to believe accusers of Moore), we’re going to see it fail in another direction at some point, when Fox News or Breitbart find someone to accuse the next Democratic presidential candidate or whoever. It does not help that the HR department of Congress itself is apparently ridiculously terrible at acting on accusations in a positive way, preferring instead it seems to pay off the victims and tell them to keep silent (while they continue to work for their abusers). Ethics investigations seem too slow for the pace of the political conversation, where scandal has a brief half-life. Is there some way to square this circle in some process to ensure both that real accusations are addressed and false ones dismissed?

Christo
Part of the way the abusers support the abusers is by keeping the process opaque and secretive. We need to keep up the sunlight, and the transparency. We need to hear about these settlements. No more paying out of a taxpayer funded slush fund. The people have a right to know what their legislators are doing. We deserve to make informed choices about who we choose to represent us. And the guilty should pay their own damn settlements.

Josh
Well said.

Dave
I’d like see a ban on confidentiality agreements covering criminal charges…

Sam
Up the pressure, too. There was an interview recently with an intern that was abused by a Congressional aide– the Congressmen abuse the aides, the aides abuse the interns, nothing but vileness all the way down. Joe Public has long known that Congress is corrupt but the “whoops I groped my employees” slush fund (paid for with YOUR money) is something else entirely. Hard time needs to be discussed and examples need to be made.

Tom
And we’re out of time for the Roundtable this week, and will have to leave it there. Thanks as always, everyone, for a lively conversation, and as Dave pointed out earlier, readers, if you have a perspective that’s outside our fairly-homogeneous newsroom and a clever pen to write it up, we’d love to add your voice; click the Get Involved link to get started.

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