Congress has a pervert problem
It would be nice to think that I was not the only person who watched Tuesday's congressional hearing regarding sexual misconduct on Capitol Hill and felt pronouncedly stupider afterwards. But apart from a headline in The Washington Post suggesting that "Training is 'first step' in stopping sexual harassment in the House, lawmakers say," there is little evidence so far that any other sentient human beings saw it. Attorney General Jeff Sessions was talking about Russia on the other C-SPAN at roughly the same time, so maybe no one did.
From start to finish, the proceedings were a bland, tedious exercise in the deployment of managerial professionalist BS in service of a status quo that virtually everyone in the room either approves of or would be happy to ignore. My favorite special guests were Barbara Childs Wallace of the CAA-OCC and Gloria Lett of OHEC, surely two of the dimmest bulbs in the not exactly radiant ceiling of previously unknown federal acronymed agencies. Asked what was the most important step that could be taken to prevent sexual harassment by members of Congress and their staff, Childs Wallace, whose actual job title is "chairwoman of the Office of Compliance's board of directors," without blinking, held up a piece of paper.
"There is no law that requires anybody in Congress to post these notices," she said.
She then proceeded to explain why putting up posters full of legalese written in tiny print is the surest way of making it absolutely clear to Rep. BlueBlazer McEntrepreneurship that he should not under any circumstances be showing his penis to members of his staff or his fellow representatives. Adults, especially those with college degrees, proud service in our nation's Armed Forces, decades of experience getting things done in the private sector, and the other sorts of things that you generally find on the CVs of congressmen, learn these things from posters when they are 40 or 50 years old. Who would know otherwise?
Of course that isn't all. According to Childs Wallace, "one component" that is sometimes neglected is "leadership within each office." Members of Congress must lead by example. If they do not issue mysterious invitations to female staffers asking them to appear at their private residences and then show up at the door wearing bathrobes with their genitals exposed, no one else will. We need "leadership from the top as to what is appropriate and what is not appropriate." That and "probably mandatory training."
Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) also seemed to be very keen on notices and "guidelines." "We really don't have current guidelines that say that a member [sleeping] with a 19-year-old intern is inappropriate," she said. "It doesn't say you cannot have that." You might even be right, congresswoman, especially since no one appeared to contradict you. I am sure that it is only the current lack of a piece of paper that is preventing the very honorable and decent public servants we have duly elected from realizing that gross old men preying on young women in their employ is something of an ethical hang-up. Comstock also made a joke about George on Seinfeld getting fired because he didn't know it was against the rules to have sex on his desk at work. Good one.
But the best of all was Lett, whose unimprovable job title of "counsel for the Office of House Employment Counsel" will bring me joy until Christmas at least. Asked by another member what can be done to improve the situation, she stumbled for a moment. "I have a very different take," she said. "I think it's a highly effective process."
The process she is describing involves, among other things, undergoing 30 days of counseling before filing a formal sexual harassment case against a congressional staffer or member of Congress. After a month has passed, the complainant then goes into "mediation" with someone who represents the office of the person they are accusing, for up to another 30 days. Finally, after mediation, if by some miracle you have not been successfully bribed or otherwise browbeaten into remaining silent — or just quit your job in frustration in the meantime — you have the privilege of waiting yet another 30 days before you are allowed to have a hearing either with Office of Compliance or, if you've been very patient, in federal district court. No wonder, as Lett explained, some 85 percent of cases never go to litigation.
We need to stop pretending that the circumstances described in a recent CNN report, in which the halls of Congress are a flesh market in which it is unremarkable for legislators to flirt with and grope members of their staff and even one another, in which a list is circulated samizdat-style of "creeps" who have to be avoided, can be dealt with using posters and bureaucratic legalese. We also need to stop fetishizing the idea of people in power as glamorous hedonistic perverts à la House of Cards, a show that, astonishingly, utilized the talents of a real-life hedonistic pervert to realize its only slightly exaggerated vision of D.C.
Being part of Congress isn't sexy. It's very boring, frequently unrewarding work that involves lots of numbers and acronyms and pointless hearings. All of which is fine, unless that machinery is getting in the way of doing something about the sexual exploitation of women, as it did on Tuesday, when two make-work professionals complacently defended the broken system that gives them a paycheck and jokes were made about '90s sitcoms.
We don't need more "compliance" training or clearer "guidelines." We don't need special displays of "leadership," "from the top" or otherwise. We just need people to behave with honor and decency. If you don't know what that involves by the time you get to Congress, a piece of paper isn't going to be able to help you — or punish you when you do something evil.