When Wall Street, Hollywood, cable news and even Silicon Valley are beating you by a mile on the road to dealing with questions of morality, respect and human decency, you can rest assured you’re doing it wrong.
Washington, you’re doing it wrong.
We had already seen a trend this year of corporate America and CEOs stepping up to tackle questions of conscience or principle while politicians remained mostly silent.
But the gulf between Washington and Wall Street has never been wider than in recent weeks, when Capitol Hill and several large companies have been roiled by accusations of sexual harassment at the exact same time. The companies, including CBS and NBCUniversal, acted swiftly. Capitol Hill, meanwhile, still seems to be looking for a consensus that it really has a problem at all.
When News Corp is outperforming Nancy Pelosi and Paul Ryan on listening to victims of harassment and making changes in kind, Capitol Hill, you have a problem. At a certain point, you have to hope congressional leaders will begin to understand that American voters will trust Congress to run the country well again only when Congress can legitimately claim to run its own organization well again.
At the moment, that is not the case.
Blurring the lines
The reality is that apart from any harassment issues, the culture of Congress already blurs the lines between personal requests and official duties, asking government-paid Capitol Hill staffers to perform jobs that most professionals would do for themselves, or in a pinch, jobs they’d ask a spouse or personal assistant to perform.
Staffers routinely pick up the boss’s dry cleaning or housesit when the member is out of town. They might run errands for the member’s spouse or give children a ride to the airport. From picking up prescriptions to acting as a concierge for the member’s friends and family, a staffer’s job is anything the boss wants.
But that’s a dangerous standard, even for a member of Congress whose judgment and moral compass are intact. When “anything the boss wants” veers into harassment or behavior that could be considered criminal, there are nearly no processes in place to protect Capitol Hill staffers or safeguard their rights.
Worse, a commitment to confidentiality has morphed into secrecy that not only protects serial harassers, but also prevents any oversight committee, including congressional leaders, from seeing a pattern of abuse in order to stop it.
The most alarming case we know about is that of Democratic Rep. John Conyers Jr of Michigan. Conyers continues to insist that he has done nothing wrong, but BuzzFeed posted sworn affidavits related to one case the congressman settled after a staffer filed a complaint with the Office of Compliance. The documents give a rare and candid glimpse into an office without boundaries, one plagued by what staffers described as a culture of serial abuse.
One staffer detailed a set of job functions that would not be entirely uncommon on Capitol Hill — calling the congressman to wake him every morning, tracking and maintaining his medication schedule, meeting him in his apartment to bring him documents or even keep him company.
But that staffer and others described behavior from Conyers that veered into the inappropriate — demands for sexual favors, unwelcome touching, flying other women in from around the country at the congressman’s request using government-funded tickets.
Although all of this information had been made public, senior Democrats at first failed to call for the congressman to resign. Had he been an anchor on Fox News or NBC, we can say with some assurance the same behavior would have gotten him fired that week.
It’s true that due process and confidentiality have to be a part of any process, since false accusations are possible and, in an election year, potent weapons in a campaign. But there has to be a way to drag Capitol Hill out of the Dark Ages of employee relations, if only for the good of the young staffers who are eager and proud to work there.
The House Administration Committee has already held one hearing on the process, or really the gauntlet, that staffers have to go through just to work in a job where they’re not subjected to harassment. More often than not, those staffers simply leave their jobs, and sometimes politics and public service altogether, in an attempt to start over.
Since no staffer should have to quit to find an answer, and many cannot afford to quit their jobs without another one in hand, Congress should consider several steps to change the reporting process that staffers face today.
First, staffers, interns and fellows need a third party to go to for advice apart from the House Employment Counsel that represents the offices and the members. Rep. Jackie Speier has suggested an ombudsman or outside counsel to help staffers understand if they are dealing with a nuisance, harassment or criminal behavior.
Second, any complaints of harassment against a member have to be reported to House and Senate leadership, with the understanding that they are complaints and not convictions. There is currently no mechanism to notify the Ethics Committee, leadership or any oversight group of bad behavior once mediation has begun. Once underway, those complaints, along with any pattern of abuse they reveal, are locked away forever.
Finally, there should be a system in pace to give these women back the chance to work on Capitol Hill. Gretchen Carlson has suggested something similar for corporate America, telling Katie Couric recently that “nobody should be denied the American dream because of some random jerk.”
Working on Capitol Hill is the American dream for so many staffers. Even a low-level job is a dream achieved for people whose own parents or grandparents never could have imagined the same. Working there shouldn’t be taken away from them because of some random jerk who happened to get themselves elected to Congress.
Nobody is above the law, but the people who write the laws should hold themselves and their colleagues to an even higher standard than that.
Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.