By the time you read this, there’ll probably be yet another powerful man — or two, or three — dethroned, cast out because of serious allegations of sexual misbehavior with subordinates. Wednesday, Americans awoke to the tweets, Facebook posts and Savannah Guthrie’s catch-in-her-throat announcement that Matt Lauer, reigning host of “Today,” was sent packing.
NBC tried mightily to get out ahead of upcoming stories of his sexual misconduct on the job, allegations of lewd talk, prying into women’s sex lives, gifting unwanted sex toys, showing off his thingy — the usual. But it was too late. His womanizing apparently was an open secret to some, and it’s alleged that anyone with the authority to confront him would not do so. Women, anonymously, said they couldn’t get a hearing. Lauer was the powerful rainmaker and, therefore, untouchable. Until this week.
And the garrulous Garrison Keillor, former host of “A Prairie Home Companion,” aired on NPR stations, was fired Tuesday by Minnesota Public Radio for alleged misconduct.
In the past six weeks, ever since the abhorrent acts of film producer Harvey Weinstein were made public, a lot of other men have paid big time, too, losing positions of power, public trust and reputation. And deservedly so.
But when the miscreants serve in Congress, turns out that Americans are paying big time, too. And that’s where taxpayers should draw the line. Buzzfeed reported last week that, in 2015, Democratic U.S. Rep. John Conyers, now 88 and one of the lions of Congress, paid more than $27,000 to settle a sexual harassment complaint against him. Only Conyers didn’t pay, we did.
The payout money came from a hush-hush bureaucratic process that Congress uses to handle harassment claims. Conyers — who admitted no guilt that he pressured a staffer for sex and eventually fired her when she refused — paid the settlement from his taxpayer-funded office budget.
In addition, lawmakers who are accused of misconduct get free legal representation, courtesy of the House counsel. The accusers have to pay for their own lawyers.
If the point is to punish misbehavior, picking taxpayers’ pockets to pay up misses the mark.
Congress has no human resource department, so the woman filed a complaint with the Office of Compliance in 2014. From there, the office follows a balky procedure to address alleged violations of all sorts of employment rules. The Washington Post reported that, since 1997, the office has paid more than $17 million for 264 settlements and awards to federal workers, including for sexual harassment claims.
Two lawmakers have been working to reform the process of reporting sexual misconduct in Congress. U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, of California, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand have introduced bipartisan legislation that would instill more transparency in the process and provide more resources for victims. It also would require that lawmakers who enter into a settlement be identified and it would set up a victims counsel to guide accusers through the process.
The payments, indeed, the whole process, are opaque, and Speier and Gillibrand have come up with a realistic partial fix. Why partial? The culpable should feel the pain and pay out of their own pockets. That alone, could cut down on the incidence of sexual misconduct. Unfortunately, neither this nor the legislation has much of a chance. Can there be any doubt that the worst offenders among lawmakers have an unspoken pact — “I’ll keep your secret, if you keep mine?”