USA Today Op Ed by Kendra Arnold
Updated: Oct 19, 2021
Congressional Sexual Harassment will Continue until Settlements See The Light of Day
Voters Have Right to Know When Tax Dollars are Used to Cover Up Sexual Abuse
After this week's special election in Alabama, it should be clear that character and ethics issues are decisive to voters. Ironically, this exactly explains both the absurd system for reporting sexual harassment in congress and, more importantly, why we don’t know the names of those elected officials who have used it to remain anonymous — and in power.
In the midst of the numerous sexual harassment cases recently revealed, we cannot forget about our elected officials who have harassed employees and been allowed to keep their behavior a secret. While we now know that congress has utilized a system to hide sexual harassment complaints and that taxpayers have funded over $17 millionin settlements over the past twenty years, we have no idea which members of congress committed these acts. As a result they have escaped accountability.
This is not a past problem — it will continue to have future repercussions unless we confront it now. In other sectors like the media and entertainment, we’ve witnessed a far different trajectory: Offenders have been publicly revealed and suffered serious consequences for their behavior. But in congress, too many perpetrators remain hidden.
It is already difficult for victims to come forward against a powerful public official knowing they will likely suffer professionally. Yet congress designed a system that explicitly protects harassers and maintains secrecy. It is truly remarkable — and it allowed the behavior to continue.
Everyone agrees that if a candidate commits sexual harassment or assault, it is relevant to voters and they have a right to know it. There is absolutely no argument to justify that sexual harassment or assault committed once elected is not just as relevant. Ironically, this is the underlying reason for those in power creating this arduous process — to hide facts from the voters and protect themselves and their power. There is nothing more un-American than that. Yet, even after the public became aware of it, the members who were protected remain anonymous and have not faced any consequences.
There have been proposals to change the congressional system prospectively, but that is not adequate. The citizens are the “employers” of congress — we choose who to hire and fire and we pay their salary. Currently, a member who has sexually harassed an individual is not required to inform his employer, yet the employer is required to unknowingly pay for it.
Bottom line: it is secrecy that has prevented accountability. Members have been permitted to harass and assault women in the workplace and suffer no liability. This scheme would not be tolerated in any other arena, and should not be tolerated here. The only way to have accountability is to inform the public. The name of every Member who has benefited from this system must be made immediately known. Anything otherwise simply excuses the behavior and mistreatment of women.
It is clear they want to let the scandal blow over without addressing the harassment that has occurred. We should not let them. If we don’t unmask these people, then they don’t face consequences for their behavior — and the status quo will continue. The citizens have every right to know their identity. We must demand accountability and transparency from our “employees.”
It’s sad that a common response to all these cases is that “society” cannot let this moment pass and we must use it to have a “conversation” and “dialogue” to achieve meaningful change. So long as we permit congress to continue covering up and protecting its members — calls to “conversation” ring more than hollow.
Kendra Arnold is Executive Director of the nonprofit Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust (FACT), a non-partisan ethics watchdog group.
Published by and available at USA Today.