The post-Harvey Weinstein moment swept into Congress this month when Leeann Tweeden accused Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., of groping and kissing her without her consent in 2006. Three more women have since come forward, two anonymously, to say that Franken touched them inappropriately during photo opportunities.
Meanwhile, Rep. John Conyers Jr., Mich., stepped down from his post as ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee following news of two sexual harassment complaints filed against him, one in federal court and one settled within Congress.
The settlement reached by Conyers through Congress’ Office of Compliance is a case in point for why the process of reporting sexual harassment within the legislature must be reformed. In 2014, the victim complained that Conyers had dismissed her as an aide after she refused his advances, including unwanted touching and requests for sexual favors. She received a settlement of more than $27,000 in taxpayer money in exchange for agreeing to remain silent about her alleged mistreatment.
Both Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and then-House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, say they knew nothing about the case - likely a result of the mandatory secrecy with which Congress resolves complaints.
Legislation introduced by Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., would make reporting harassment easier by speeding up the process and providing victims with greater resources.
It would also require Congress to make public how much each office has paid out in settlements. If a settlement were reached against a lawmaker, that member of Congress would have to pay out of his or her own pocket instead of relying on taxpayer funding from the Office of Compliance.
Those would be important improvements. But Congress must shine a light on past misdeeds as well. Although the Office of Compliance has now released total figures for all settlements paid out in the legislative branch from 1997 onward, the data are vague: There’s no information as to how many cases were resolved, which offices were involved and how much of the $17 million total in settlements concerned sexual harassment complaints. What’s more, the tally doesn’t include settlements such as that reached by Mr. Conyers, whose office further obscured the complaint by paying the victim directly as a “temporary employee.” Lawmakers should make public as much information as possible about these settlements while respecting victims’ privacy. Americans have a right to know how their money was spent.
These same principles of openness and transparency require rigorous congressional investigations of both Franken and Conyers. The House Ethics Committee has begun looking into Conyers’ behavior, while Senate leadership has voiced support for a similar probe into Franken’s. It’s right to insist on due process before deciding what should come next. But that process must be serious - neither a means by which Democrats can bury an uncomfortable truth nor an excuse for Republicans to score political points. Both House and Senate committees must understand their duty to move aggressively, fairly and expeditiously.