Early in the Harvey Weinstein scandal reporting arc, I wondered when we’d start hearing about harassment and worse in other centers of power that have few opportunities for accountability. The Tim Murphy scandal exposed a years-long pattern of abuse in his House office, and while it was not sexual harassment, it clearly indicated that same lack of accountability for exercise of power, and the same “open secret” mentality as Hollywood. “It’s not just the Weinsteins in Hollywood whose abuse gets excused as an ‘open secret,’ either,” I wrote. “Who are the other Murphys and Mosychuks in Washington DC?”
You know, I think we’re about to find out. The Associated Press talked with Mary Bono and other women who have served or are serving in Congress, and they’re beginning to talk openly about their experiences with fellow members — although they’re not naming names. Yet:
As reports flow almost daily of harassment or worse by men in entertainment, business and the media, one current and three former female lawmakers tell The Associated Press that they, too, have been harassed or subjected to hostile sexual comments — by fellow members of Congress.
The incidents occurred years or even decades ago, usually when the women were young newcomers to Congress. They range from isolated comments at one hearing, to repeated unwanted come-ons, to lewd remarks and even groping on the House floor. Coming amid an intensifying national focus on sexual harassment and gender hostility in the workplace, the revelations underscore that no woman is immune, even at the highest reaches of government.
Linda Sanchez (D-CA) says her harasser remains in Congress, but that she’s not able to do much about it:
“When I was a very new member of Congress in my early 30s, there was a more senior member who outright propositioned me, who was married, and despite trying to laugh it off and brush it aside it, would repeat. And I would avoid that member,” said Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif. She added that she would warn other new female members about the lawmaker in question, but she declined to identify him, while saying he remains in Congress.
“I just don’t think it would be helpful” to call the lawmaker out by name, Sanchez said. “The problem is, as a member there’s no HR department you can go to, there’s nobody you can turn to. Ultimately they’re employed by their constituents.”
And that makes this situation somewhat different than in other power centers. Each Representative and Senator is, at least theoretically, a free agent with equal power. Voters elect them to office, and no one except the voters can “fire” them. If indeed sexual harassment is about “power,” as Barbara Boxer tells the AP, how can it exist between equal members of the same body?
Two women currently serving in Congress have an answer to that — one that may surprise readers. Jackie Speier (D-CA) got harassed as a congressional staffer, but says that women in office need to be “big girls” and not put up with it:
Yet when it comes to lawmakers themselves, Speier said: “I think the women in Congress are big girls. The equalizer that exists in Congress that doesn’t exist in other settings is that we all get paid the same amount and we all have a vote, the same vote. So if you have members that are demeaning you it’s because you’re letting them.”
Former Rep. Ellen Tauscher of California flatly argued that harassment can’t take place between members of Congress. “Female members and male members are equals, they don’t sexually harass each other,” Tauscher said.
That’s an interesting argument in itself; the AP notes that the law on sexual harassment recognizes that it can take place between peers as well as people at different levels. However, there’s a bigger picture in this story. The harassment between members only sets the table. If it’s this bad between peers, what is it like for the staffers?
Like Hollywood, young men and women flock to Capitol Hill to find seemingly glamorous careers in a high-profile industry, and face tremendous competition for jobs that really matter. Thanks to Congress’ decision to remove almost all accountability from themselves for employment practices, they can treat these staffers any way they want without much fear of exposure. Like Hollywood, they only are at risk when they’ve already stumbled badly enough to risk losing their office — as happened with Tim Murphy. Until now, that’s the only circumstance in which the “open secret” becomes the acknowledged reality.
The real scandals will come when staffers on Capitol Hill begin naming names. Having these members come forward to tell their stories might reveal a host of “open secrets” in the same fashion that Harvey Weinstein’s accusers broke the dam of silence in Hollywood. That day seems to be approaching soon — probably a lot sooner than 535 elected officials on that end of Pennsylvania Avenue expect.