Opinion

You're providing the hush money for congressional sexual harassment

Ending this insane practice would probably be the most unifying issue in America — if Congress could bear to take it up, that is

The last news story I read before taking that most American of four-day reprieves from anything to do with politics or world affairs was illustrated with an image of the massive white belly of Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) staring out at me like the abdomen of some great and hideous spider. This picture, apparently taken from nature, was allegedly sent by the congressman to a woman whom he later allegedly threatened with an investigation by the Capitol Police Force and the FBI should she choose to share it with the American people.

The news of Barton's ridiculous ultimatum came only a few weeks after a report from The Washington Post revealed that in the last decade Congress has paid out more than $17 million in settlements related to the violation of workplace regulations, including sexual harassment. Meanwhile, with Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) simultaneously ashamed of various incidents and uncertain of their ever having taken place and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) trying to explain away a $27,000 payment to a staffer fired after refusing to yield to his advances, leaders of both parties find themselves under pressure to make all the facts known about these and similar cases on Capitol Hill.

What a no-brainer.

This, as those of us in the column-writing line never tire of pointing out, is a divided country. But if there is one issue that can unite all Americans — Republican and Democrat, conservative and progressive, libertarian and socialist, believer and atheist, Catholic and Protestant, dog owner and cat owner, Wolverine and Buckeye — it is the principle that sexual harassment carried out by members of Congress and their staff should not be kept secret and that it is not the taxpayer's responsibility to pay for it.

It is difficult to think of any information whose disclosure would be more in the public interest than the knowledge that Rep. Blueblazer McEntrepreneurship or Sen. Wokeman Goldflake or trusted members of their respective entourages harassed or even assaulted women. How it ever came to pass that such cases were not made immediately available to the public is one of those extraordinary mysteries that only Washington could produce.

This is not an argument against compensating victims (though as it happens I think we are due for a serious discussion about the benefits of a system that allows those with money to paper over accusations again and again, obscuring what should be an obvious pattern) but against the absurd idea that elected officials are like employees of a major corporation, one with certain responsibilities to employees that ultimately fall upon shareholders. Today's elected officials are not stolid Ciceronian statesmen in a constitutional republic; they are professional fundraisers, people who glad-hand and beg for a living. They have plenty of money, and like the rest of us, they should be responsible for paying for their own crimes. Even if it's not sitting there in the campaign coffers, surely their paymasters on Wall Street can be counted on. Sexual harassment in Congress is an open secret. Surely for the donor class the spiritual and emotional well-being of a few score women have long been regarded as the price of securing tax cuts or seeing their preferred financial regulations passed.

Recent legislation introduced in the House by a bipartisan group of (mostly female) representatives does not go nearly far enough. Transparency requirements making sexual harassment cases in Congress public should apply retroactively, not just to those dating from 2017 onward — it does us no good to try applying the rules to unknown individuals who obviously don't care about them. The name of any member of Congress who has authorized payment in response to a sexual harassment claim should be public knowledge. Nor should any future payments come on the taxpayer's dime. The treasury didn't bail out Harvey Weinstein, and it shouldn't put the rest of us on the hook for the crimes of perverts who just happen to have "Rep" or "Sen" in front of their names. Last of all, mandatory "training" is a dead end. If you have made it far enough in life to be elected to one of the highest offices in the land without knowing that it's not okay to show your genitals to interns in an elevator, a PowerPoint presentation isn't going to make things any less murky for you.

If Congress could pass a bill like this and President Trump sign it into law, it would be the only useful thing to have happened in D.C. this year. It would also be supported universally.

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