Is Washington finally facing its sexual harassment problems? Experts are unsure

FILE - In this July 12, 2017 file photo, Senate Judiciary Committee member Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn. arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

As questions swirl around the behavior of Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., and Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, experts hope both parties can avoid the mistakes of the past as they grapple with the latest sexual misconduct allegations roiling Capitol Hill.

Franken apologized Thursday for groping a news anchor during a 2006 USO tour, and he was met with nearly unanimous condemnations and calls for investigation from his colleagues in both parties. He has said he will cooperate with an ethics investigation but he has not indicated he is willing to step down before that probe is complete.

President Donald Trump weighed in on Twitter late Thursday night, suggesting Franken is a hypocrite for advocating respect for women and opposing sexual harassment after his past behavior.

Meanwhile in Alabama, former Judge Moore is facing more accusations of misconduct with teenagers as young as 14 when he was in his 30s. Moore’s wife held a press conference Friday to reiterate his refusal to leave the race as national Republicans scramble to salvage their chances to win the December 12 special election with or without him.

Republicans in D.C. have continued distancing themselves from Moore as additional allegations emerge.

“There have been so many developments regarding Roy Moore in the last two weeks, especially the last week, that I found it incumbent on me to vote Republican but to write in some distinguished person’s name rather than Judge Moore,” said Sen. Richard Shelby, Alabama’s senior senator, Wednesday.

Rep Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., said Alabamans will have to decide for themselves whether Moore belongs in the Senate, but he considers any kind of sexual harassment or assault unacceptable.

“Let’s learn from this and say we have got to have a steadfast commitment in the United States to do away with sexual harassment forever,” Fleischmann said. “We’ve got to do more, whether it’s here in the halls of Congress or in the private sector. It cannot be tolerated.”

The broader issue of sexual harassment in Congress fell under the spotlight this week as Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., testified at a hearing that two current members of Congress have engaged in sexual harassment. She did not name them.

Lawmakers also revealed that the Office of Compliance has paid out $17 million for 268 settlements, including sexual harassment, discrimination, and other cases, since 1997. The money is paid by taxpayers through a fund set up by the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act.

In a recent letter, 1,500 former congressional staffers demanded reform in sexual harassment policies. Many members of Congress have now expressed support for mandatory harassment training.

Not everyone on Capitol Hill sees an epidemic of sexual misconduct that must be addressed.

“I’ve never seen that happen to anyone in my office,” said Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla. “I’ve been here for a long period of time, and it’s almost as if they’re looking for a problem that doesn’t exist.”

“I know that’s a very narrow view,” he added.

Inhofe is not disputing the claims made by others that they have experienced harassment, but he does not know if systemic change is needed to prevent it.

“I’m not sure it’s going to take legislation, because maybe these are isolated cases,” he said. “And I have to tell you, I have not had a personal conversation with any of these who have raised that as being a real serious problem.”

The reckoning with the sexual climate in Washington follows weeks of self-examination and recriminations in Hollywood and elsewhere that began when several prominent actresses accused film producer Harvey Weinstein of harassment and assault.

“Having women who are considered role models come forward…seems to empower a pretty large segment of the population,” said Renee Cramer, chair of the law, politics, and society program at Drake University.

Several prominent directors and actors, including Kevin Spacey and Louis C.K., have rapidly fallen from grace amid allegations of misconduct. Although the stakes seem to be rising with Moore and Franken, it remains to be seen if the momentum exists to fundamentally alter the culture in Congress.

“In a sense, many of the sexual predators who are on Capitol Hill have been effectively put on notice: times are changing,” said Vanessa Tyson, assistant professor of politics at Scripps College.

Tyson is “cautiously optimistic” because the conversation is at least being had and victims may feel more comfortable coming forward.

“Even when certain new rules might be passed or potential legislation is brought up, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it will translate into real cultural change on Capitol Hill,” she said.

That many observers even today seem to decide who to believe and who to blame when politicians are accused based on their ideological views rather than weighing every case objectively is unfortunate but unsurprising to experts.

“I think the fact that not everybody is doing that is a really sad commentary about political polarization in the United States,” said Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University. “We shouldn’t be viewing these cases through the lens of partisanship.”

The Franken situation is somewhat unique. The allegation came with seemingly irrefutable photo evidence and it came at a time when Democrats had just pounced on sexual misconduct allegations against Moore. Defending him may be politically untenable even if they wanted to.

“The Sen. Franken thing complicates it because now Democrats who had been very critical of Trump and Moore have to be critical of Franken…. Partisanship is now at play, but it’s because I have to behave a certain way or I’d look partisan if I don’t,” said Kathleen Dolan, chair of the political science department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Although the condemnation of Franken from his colleagues was swift Thursday, the consequences likely will not be. Unless he voluntarily resigns, an Ethics Committee investigation takes time.

Even if the issue is being taken very seriously in D.C. today, Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University, noted that past periods of political enlightenment on the subject have eventually receded.

“I’m old enough to remember how the topic of sexual harassment was elevated into the national political conversation after the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearings of Professor Anita Hill’s charges of sexual harassment against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991,” she said.

“The reaction of people across the county, including many women’s organizations, about the then all-male Senate Judiciary Committee’s treatment of Hill -- as if she was the one on trial -- and their lack of understanding about the issue of sexual harassment opened up a national conversation and resulted in a record number of women running for and being elected to the U.S. Congress in 1992.”

The media environment today may make it more difficult to move on, though.

“I believe the current conversation will be extended as more women feel empowered to share their stories of sexual assault on social and traditional media,” Bystrom said.

While post-Weinstein social awareness is coloring reactions to new allegations, it is also driving some Democrats to look backward at behavior of party leaders they excused or defended in the past, including President Bill Clinton.

Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives for lying under oath about his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Throughout his 1992 campaign and his eight years in office, though, he was hounded by allegations of non-consensual sexual acts as well.

He settled a lawsuit over allegedly exposing himself to state employee Paula Jones when he was governor of Arkansas. Juanita Broaddrick accused him of raping her when she was a volunteer on one of his gubernatorial campaigns. Kathleen Willey alleged that he groped her in the Oval Office.

Clinton adamantly denied all of those claims. His supporters often focused on his consensual, but in some ways still troubling, relationship with Lewinsky, and they raised doubts about the credibility of Broaddrick and Willey.

The Broaddrick and Willey accusations are serious, but Cramer argued Clinton’s admitted affair with Lewinsky should be revisited as well because of the uneven power dynamics involved.

“Whether or not allegations of non-consensual behavior come to be the focus, I think an acknowledgment of the power differential is an important thing,” she said.

Looking back in recent weeks, some on the left have questioned whether Democrats and feminists who defended Clinton in the 90s were misguided.

In retrospect, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., told the New York Times it now seems clear Clinton should have resigned over the Lewinsky affair.

“Things have changed today, and I think under those circumstances there should be a very different reaction,” she said. “And I think in light of this conversation, we should have a very different conversation about President Trump, and a very different conversation about allegations against him.”

Democrats are overdue to have this debate, but Dolan said they deserve little credit for deciding now to take Clinton’s accusers more seriously.

“It’s a little convenient in some ways,” she said. “I think the work that should have been done was in the moment.”

Clinton’s political survival in the face of rape and assault allegations was a function of the time in which he operated, but Tyson argued Democrats still should have recognized “patterns of predation” in his behavior.

“When you think about the dynamics of the 1990s, whether we’re talking about Anita Hill, whether we’re talking about Gennifer Flowers, whether we’re talking about Monica Lewinsky, what have you, there was a repeated dynamic of undermining the credibility of women, particularly when it came to situations of a sexual nature,” she said.

Compared to those days, there has been a seismic shift in how such cases are seen by the public.

“Suffice to say, Bill Clinton would have a hard time getting elected today given the allegations that have been made against him,” Gillespie said.

Donald Trump did get elected in 2016, though, despite accusations of harassment and misconduct by more than a dozen women. He disputed those claims and threatened to sue at the time, but little has been said about the matter since the election.

Experts see a significant political risk for Trump in wading into the Franken debate, one borne out on cable news Friday with the “Access Hollywood” video of him bragging about sexual assault to Billy Bush in 2005 receiving heavy airplay.

“He didn’t do himself any favors when he decided to make comments about Al Franken and not Roy Moore,” Gillespie said.

The White House maintained Friday that the public “spoke very loud and clear” on the allegations against Trump by electing him, but Bystrom said the issue has not been put to rest for many.

“He does not seem to be immune to scrutiny on this, at least not by the national media and those elected officials and voters who were concerned about his conduct when it was raised during the 2016 campaign,” she said.

The world has changed since November 2016, and whether Trump or Clinton gets dragged down by it or not, the national conversation about sexual harassment and the treatment of women in entertainment, politics, and other fields may just be beginning.

“I don’t think that the flood is over by any means,” Cramer said. “I think it’s the tip of the iceberg. It shows there’s something endemic about the way we organize work and women’s roles in work.”

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