Reprinted from the Quad-City Times Nov. 19.
The good ol’ boys can’t police themselves.
Sweeping allegations about cultures of sexual harassment and lewd conduct are roiling statehouses in Des Moines and elsewhere. On Nov. 14, dozens of women on Capitol Hill in Washington — including lobbyists, congressional staff and lawmakers themselves — told tales of salacious comments and wildly inappropriate behavior among male lawmakers and lobbyists. In all instances, women said reporting the degradation posed a threat to their careers. And so, in too many cases, they remained silent, while establishing a set of unofficial rules to protect themselves:
Avoid lawmakers who sleep in their offices.
Avoid late night trips on the elevator.
Avoid events where the booze is flowing.
They’re fooling themselves if lawmakers think the very men guilty of the degrading, dehumanizing behavior can somehow lord over the fix.
Hundreds of victims have come forward in recent months. Male lawmakers have exposed themselves to young congressional staffers, one female member of Congress said. Dozens of women reported widespread harassment and lewd behavior throughout Illinois’ Statehouse, many signing a letter that sent shock waves through the Capitol. And, in Iowa, Kirsten Anderson, the state Senate’s former spokeswoman was recently awarded $1.7 million after she claimed in a lawsuit she was fired by Senate Republican leaders for reporting incessant harassment by a male co-worker.
Anderson’s is a case-study that confirms all the fears of the hundreds of women who said they spent years biting their tongues. In many ways, it remains a man’s world and, in these cases, men have power over careers.
But, finally, the tipping point might have been reached. All the demeaning, punitive behavior, all the wielding of power for sex, the election of a president who, years ago, bragged about assaulting women and getting away with it because he’s “a star”: Women are speaking up. And — out of self interest — men are finally listening.
But the fix is neither clear-cut nor obvious — be it among Democrats in Springfield or Republicans in Des Moines.
Take Nov. 14’s fiasco. Iowa Senate Majority Bill Dix, R-Shell Rock, finally admitted Anderson was harassed while working for his caucus. Yet, he still maintains her firing had nothing to do with her complaints. And he’s yet to offer a legitimate defense of his initial decision to keep the accused harasser on the Senate GOP’s payroll. But Dix also did an about-face on Tuesday, scuttling plans to create a human resources position to grapple with what looks to be culture of sex and pressure.
Minutes later, Iowa House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, rebuked Dix by announcing she created the post in the lower house.
While Dix has obfuscated and dodged his own responsibility throughout Anderson’s case, Tuesday’s events exposed the potential imperfections in any potential fix. Put simply, lawmakers cannot be trusted to police themselves. Any fix must include a wholly independent office capable of investigating complaints without political pressure or tinkering.
Upmeyer’s new HR personnel won’t be free from political pressure. He or she will answer to the House clerk, a political appointee, and, thereby, answer to the majority caucus. In Springfield, Illinois lawmakers appointed an emergency inspector general, who wields substantially greater independence, a move that might improve things in the short-term. But, during this month’s veto session, creating a phone tip line and instituting mandatory sexual harassment training was the best Illinois lawmakers could come up with in the long term.
Even the U.S. Senate is struggling to root out its culture that treats women like objects for conquering. So far, Sen. Chuck Grassley’s bill, which would create mandatory training programs for staff, has been the best of a weak collection of less-than-inspired solutions. At least Grassley is thinking.
Female empowerment is an economic and moral issue. It speaks to the basic principles of equal protection and the ability of all Americans to wield agency over their lives. It cannot co-exist in a culture where men in power abuse their subordinates and sex is a commodity traded for one’s career.
There’s simply no reason to believe the very institutions that foster the sexual harassment scourge can fix it. Only a full-time inspector general or ombudsman, appointed to a long tenure by a bipartisan committee, can operate independent from the very politics that created this culture of mental abuse and financial punishment.
That’s if the men in the room actually believe any of their lofty rhetoric.