Do our national legislators genuinely want to stop their colleagues from committing offensive and illegal acts?
Plagued by scandals about its members who are guilty of sex-discriminatory acts, Congress might already have been expected to have pulled up its socks to stop such misconduct and hold perpetrators responsible morally and financially—but if my own recent experience reaching out to them on the issue is any indication, even their administration of current procedures at the most preliminary stage of ethics complaints leaves much to be desired, boding ill for implementation of the legislation currently in the works.
Since the rise of the #MeToo movement, Congress has been under attack for concealing the use of taxpayers’ money it authorized to pay victims of sex-related misconduct by legislators and staff. U.S. Senators and Congress members are now trying to reconcile two deeply flawed pieces of legislation about sex-based mistreatment on Capitol Hill that their respective entities recently passed. But when I tried to obtain simple information about filing a complaint, I encountered a troubling series of gatekeeping and stonewalling procedures.
After watching a sitting U.S. Senator speak publicly in favor of women’s rights, then fail to follow through with advocacy, last December I wrote him a letter marked “Highly Confidential.” He had subjected me to sex-based discrimination long ago, and the experience had had considerable and lasting effects on me. In my letter, I recounted what he had done, noting that it had been libelous, sexist and totally irrelevant to the context in which we were operating. I requested an apology.
Receiving no reply, I resent the letter in January with this note: “If I don’t hear from you by January 23, 2018, I will assume that you recall and acknowledge everything in my letter of December 1, 2017, and you have no intention of apologizing.” He did not reply.
My efforts to take even the first steps leading up to filing a complaint with the Senate Ethics Committee (SEC) took me through two months of events that were frustrating, often bizarre to the point of being hilarious—were the subject not so serious, and ultimately unhelpful.
For the past two months—through five phone calls, an email to the Senator who chairs the SEC and a fax to its General Counsel—I have tried to learn whether there was even any point in my filing a complaint. I asked questions to which I had found no answers: Is there a statute of limitations? Must the discrimination have occurred while the person was in the Senate? (I do not depend on the Senate to keep my job, so I was more persistent than some others might have been.)
During my first call, SEC staff refused my request for relevant information on the topics, and refused to give me their own names or the names of anyone else in their office. They would not say when anyone else would be available. During my second, a woman who had taken my first call claimed to have no record of it.
My repeated requests to have a supervisor or General Counsel Deborah Sue Mayer return my call brought no results. A staff member who answered the phone said he could not give me a ballpark figure about how when I might expect Mayer’s reply to the letter I faxed her.
I wrote to SEC Chair Senator Johnny Isakson, saying that the public deserves to know that this is how that Committee handles a citizen’s most preliminary inquiry, and I described what had happened and asked for his assistance, adding that the receptionist in his Senate office said that that office has nothing to do with the Ethics Committee. I received no reply.
Prospects for the future are unpromising. Last February, in a rare, unanimous vote, the House passed a bipartisan bill that would end the longstanding practice of using taxpayers’ money for settlements with victims and would give people filing sex-based mistreatment complaints legal representation—something currently provided only for the accused. But that legislation does not apply to past victims who have not yet filed complaints, which many have hesitated to do because of the complexity and secrecy of House Ethics Committee procedures. Critics have said the bill will make it harder for the public to learn about these cases and more difficult to sue members of Congress.
More recently, the Senate passed legislation on the same matter—about which longtime victims’ advocate Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) expressed concern, because it “appears to shift the power back to the institution instead of the victims.” The bill narrows the scope of what is considered misconduct and declares that victims not be provided legal counsel.
The complete stonewalling I encountered raises the question of what happens to someone currently employed on the Hill who stands to lose her job if she files a complaint and who, upon gathering the courage to try to do that, cannot obtain relevant information—nevermind support.
The time is now to pressure members of both chambers to stop passing half-hearted measures on sexual misconduct and start showing genuine, deep commitment to stopping sex discrimination on the Hill. In the meantime, those looking for the #MeToo movement to lead to significant changes might need to look elsewhere.