No one should lament the political demise of Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., amid accusations of groping and harassing eight women. Without admission or apology and with no other choice after Democrats abandoned him, Franken said Thursday that he will resign “in the coming weeks.”
Fine as far as it goes. But lopping off a few convenient heads will not foster lasting change. The women who accuse Franken were adults and did not depend on him for their jobs or future employment. They could have spoken up at the time.
If Congress is going to change the culture that has allowed harassment to flourish across the country, it needs to keep its eye on the most egregious cases — those where a power imbalance has allowed men to prey on women who feel powerless to do anything about it.
OPPOSING VIEW: We're on a sexual harassment warlock hunt
The news has been replete with such examples. The longest-serving member of this Congress, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., faces multiple allegations of workplace sexual misconduct. Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein has been accused of harassing and molesting a string of women whose careers depended on his favor. Roy Moore, Alabama's Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, has been accused, among several allegations, by a woman who said he molested her when she was 14, which if true, would be a crime.
Such allegations need to be dealt with most harshly. And it is Congress that can set the standard. It hasn't.
In his Senate floor speech, Franken lashed out at what he called the “irony in the fact that I am leaving while a man who has bragged on tape about his history of sexual assaults sits in the Oval Office and a man who has repeatedly preyed on young girls campaigns for the Senate with the full support of his party.”
Franken is hardly in a position to criticize, but he makes a valid point.
What can Congress do? Lawmakers can set an example by revamping the hypocritical and secret system it has used for decades to hide harassers and silence their victims with taxpayer money. For starters, it could release the names of lawmakers, now secret, who have settled harassment claims.
Bipartisan measures already introduced would make the process less cumbersome for workers, get rid of required secrecy going forward, and mandate that lawmakers who settle claims use money out of their own pockets. If Congress fails to change this law, no number of forced resignations will make a difference.
Members from both parties also must demonstrate that they hold standards that don’t sway with the political winds. Certainly, nothing in politics is apolitical. Democrats can easily take the high road on the fate of Conyers and Franken, knowing that Democrats would replace them. (Minnesota’s Democratic governor will appoint Franken’s successor; Conyers’ Detroit district is a Democratic stronghold.) Senators also know that to make a valid case against candidate Moore, they need to clean their own house. But what will happen if a lawmaker in a swing district is accused?
As for Republicans, they're all over the place. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Franken could not “effectively serve the people of Minnesota” any longer, while asserting that Moore’s future is “up to the people of Alabama.” Talk about a double standard. President Trump and the Republican National Committee have heartily endorsed Moore. House Speaker Paul Ryan looked like the only person with some principles Thursday when he reiterated his call for Moore to drop out of the race.
The nation’s lawmakers have an opportunity to lead. Every type of sexual misconduct is unacceptable, but not all of it is equal. In the workplace, where bosses hold a person’s career and livelihood in their hands, harassers do the most damage and must never be tolerated. Nor should anyone get away with criminal acts. At the same time, those accused deserve due process. And not every transgression requires the same punishment.
Congress can still distinguish itself as it works through this minefield, but time to do so is running out fast.
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