During a hearing on harassment in the U.S. Capitol, Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va., told the story of a young woman whose male boss, a sitting member of Congress, answered the door in a towel and exposed himself when the staffer stopped by his house to drop off materials. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said she knew of two current lawmakers, one a Democrat and the other a Republican, who “have engaged in sexual harassment.” And now a Los Angeles radio host has accused Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., of kissing and groping her without her consent.
Franken’s misconduct occurred in 2006, three years before he entered the Senate. But the allegations against him have brought the nationwide reckoning with sexual harassment into the Capitol.
Leeann Tweeden alleges that Franken forcibly kissed her while the two were traveling on a USO tour to entertain troops abroad. A photograph from the same tour shows Franken appearing to grab Tweeden’s chest while she sleeps. While Franken says that he doesn’t “remember” the kiss the way she does, he has apologized for the photograph and says he is “disgusted with himself.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., have both called for an investigation into Franken’s conduct, to which the senator pledges his cooperation. We’re glad to see members of Franken’s own party voice their support for a fair probe by the Senate Ethics Committee. McConnell’s commitment to supporting committee investigations into “all credible allegations of sexual harassment or assault” also must hold firm for members of his own party — not only Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, into whom McConnell has promised an ethics probe if Moore triumphs in an Alabama special election. Comstock’s and Speier’s stories show that abuse of power on Capitol Hill is a problem that crosses party lines.
As the committee looks into Franken’s behavior, it will have to consider what comes next. What level of misconduct merits a lawmaker’s departure from Congress? Should the legislature have a zero- tolerance policy, or can gradations of offense be recognized? If a member’s wrongdoing took place entirely before his time on the Hill, should that affect continued service? Members of the House of Representatives should be asking these same questions.
Meanwhile, there’s a lot of work to be done to ensure that victims of workplace harassment in Congress have access to justice. Under existing rules, those seeking to file a complaint must work their way through a cumbersome process that discourages victims from coming forward — and interns have nowhere to turn at all. Speier and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., have introduced much-needed legislation to streamline the reporting process and increase transparency. The bill also would write into law mandatory sexual harassment training across Congress, which both chambers have recently adopted as a matter of policy.
“As elected officials,” Gillibrand said, “we should be held to the highest standards — not the lowest.” She is right. Both Democrats and Republicans should support measures to hold predators to account, provide victims with support and make clear that all people deserve to be treated with respect.
AN EDITORIAL IN THE WASHINGTON POST