Opinion

Why Katie Hill had to go

California Democrat couldn’t stay on in a chamber that had promised to change its ways

With the new rules in place regarding relationships between lawmakers and their staff, California Rep. Katie Hill had no choice but to resign, Murphy writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

OPINION — There is nothing worse than watching a person you’re rooting for make a mistake. In the case of former Rep. Katie Hill, the talented newcomer made a major mistake when she engaged in a relationship with a campaign staffer leading up to the 2018 midterm elections. She was right to resign her seat last week because of it.

Hill’s mistake was not simply having an affair, especially in this case when the relationship seems to have been consensual and even something her husband was aware of and participated in. But the California Democrat’s choice to start and continue a relationship with a young staffer on her congressional campaign happened at the very time that other women on Capitol Hill were fighting to protect staffers long subjected to sexual harassment by their bosses there.

After the yearslong battle to end rampant harassment and abuse in Congress, there was no way Hill could stay on in a chamber that has promised to change its ways. The fact that the woman in Hill’s case was a staffer on a campaign, rather than a D.C. office, is a distinction without a difference. A sexual relationship with any staffer is unacceptable. Katie Hill had to go.

It’s crucial here to remember where the Capitol Hill community was in terms of harassment protections just two years ago. Although the #MeToo movement had swept across the country and rooted out bad behavior from Hollywood to boardrooms, the Capitol complex was unusually silent on its own bad behavior. Only excellent reporting by Roll Call and others at the time revealed to the country what those of us on the inside knew all along — that sexual harassment of staffers was flagrant, punishment was rare, compensation was secret and paid with taxpayer dollars, and disclosure of settlements against members was illegal. Shielded by a culture of abuse without consequences, sexual harassment was not just tolerated by congressional rules, it was protected.

[Opinion: Time to investigate members for sexual harassment]

In 2017, the Office of Compliance disclosed that Congress had paid out more than $17 million over the previous two decades to settle harassment and other workplace claims against members, all kept silent by nondisclosure agreements, often even without the knowledge of House and Senate leadership. A CQ Roll Call survey of staffers taken in July 2016 also showed that forty percent of the women on the Hill believed sexual harassment was a problem and 15 percent, one in six, had been subjected to harassment themselves.

CQ Roll Call even spoke with former female members who said they themselves had been harassed by older male congressmen over the years but felt powerless to do anything about it. “We learned to deal with it, to accept it,” former California Rep. Mary Bono said. “We never thought we could change it. And now … we’re recognizing that we can actually change it.”

[Opinion: The real year of the woman

In a single week in 2017, three lawmakers resigned or announced they would over harassment claims against them. Arizona Rep. Trent Franks left after aides described his efforts to pay a female staffer $5 million to carry his child and then retaliated against her when she declined the offer. Michigan Rep. John Conyers Jr., who died last month, resigned when reports surfaced that he had asked female staff members to cuddle with him in his apartment and then fired them after they refused. And Minnesota Sen. Al Franken announced he would resign his seat when eight women accused him of groping or inappropriate conduct, including LeeAnn Tweeden, who shared a photo of Franken smiling and acting as if he was groping her as she slept on a 2006 trip to entertain troops overseas. 

As accusations and resignations rolled in, CQ Roll Call’s  Erin Bacon said the thing that surprised her the most about covering the story was “realizing how deep of a problem this is and how Congress hasn’t done anything about it or cared about it until this moment.”

[Opinion: Women played a key role in harassment bill]

That moment yielded the first real change to harassment rules on the Hill in decades. Pushed by a team of female lawmakers in both parties, staffers were given access to counsel, settlements against members had to be paid by members and made public every six months, harassment claims got an automatic referral to the House Ethics Committee, and relationships between staffers and members were entirely prohibited — even consensual ones. Although it’s rarely discussed, consensual relationships both endangered the staffers involved when relationships ended and opened the door to favorable treatment at the expense of other staffers in the meantime. More than anything, they represented an abuse of power over the entire staff that is both inappropriate and wrong.

Speaking of inappropriate and wrong, many people have come to Hill’s defense, saying she is the victim of a double standard, especially since President Donald Trump himself bragged about his exploitation of women, only to be elected to the White House. But Trump’s degradation of standards cannot become the norm in Washington. As long as he is in office, the only standard left is the one we hold ourselves to. With her resignation, Hill has shown she holds herself to a higher standard than the president.

In her final speech on the House floor, Hill apologized profusely to her family, her staff, her supporters, and “every little girl that looked up to me.” But I hope that even when she is outside Congress, she stays in the fight. By taking responsibility for her role in last week’s events, she proved her worthiness for office in the future.

No person is beyond redemption. And I believe that none of us is as bad as the worst mistake we’ve ever made. As Hill said last week, she’s yielding the floor for now, but not forever. I believe Katie Hill when she says it.

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.

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