Lawmakers are likely dreading their return to Capitol Hill after the long Thanksgiving weekend, as there is a storm brewing over whether Congress will take action to dispel the secrecy surrounding sexual harassment allegations and make it easier for staffers to report misconduct.
Democrats were hit by a one-two punch of scandal in recent weeks: Rep. John Conyers (MI) stepped down from his ranking position on the House Judiciary Committee amid sexual harassment claims, while Sen. Al Franken (MN) was accused by several women of lewd behavior that included groping and forcible kissing.
Both will be subjected to ethics investigations into their prior behavior. However, some congressional colleagues are calling on their fellow lawmakers to use the Conyers and Franken cases as an impetus to do away with non-disclosure agreements and private settlements once and for all when it comes to sexual misconduct.
“Congress should never be above the law, Congress should not play by their own set of rules, and as elected officials, we should be held to the highest standards – not the lowest,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) in a statement announcing legislation that she introduced alongside Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA), another prominent critic of Congress’s current sexual harassment policy.
The House is set to pass a bipartisan resolution calling for anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training like the program that the Senate has already adopted, the New York Times reported. Legislation calling for sexual harassment claims to be handled publicly has proven more controversial.
While Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) signaled support for a more transparent process during a recent appearance on “Meet the Press,” she also suggested that such an approach could also risk exposing the accusers’ identities, especially if settlements that have already occurred were made public.
Conyers’ accuser is reportedly facing a similar dilemma, claiming that a confidentiality agreement was prohibiting her from publicly telling her side of the story. He shot down those claims, as well as allegations made by a second accuser and published by Buzzfeed News.
“I deny these allegations, many of which were raised by documents reportedly paid for by a partisan alt-right blogger,” Conyers said. He was referring to Mike Cernovich, who provided documents about the original allegations to Buzzfeed.
“I very much look forward to vindicating myself and my family before the House Committee on Ethics,” he added.