A century of crime

On March 28, 1923, distressed by the behavior of men in the capitol, young women in Washington, D.C., formed an Anti-Flirting Club.

It was a time when, sensibilities being what they were, stronger language did not exist for what bothered them—not that it mattered, since D.C. is on a verrrrrry slowwwwww learning curve.

How slow? This slow: Ninety-five years later to the day, on March 23, 2018, every woman U.S. senator gathered to demand action on the same problem. Fortunately, in the intervening years, a vocabulary that does not tiptoe around the issue has developed:

“Survivors who have bravely come forward to share their stories have brought to light just how widespread harassment and discrimination continue to be throughout Capitol Hill,” the senators wrote in a joint statement. “No longer can we allow the perpetrators of these crimes to hide behind a 23-year-old law.”

They were talking about 1995’s Congressional Accountability Act, prescribing how harassment claims are dealt with on Capitol Hill. It’s part of the problem that Congress thinks it needs a law of its own to govern its behavior instead of just putting itself under the same state and local laws under which all our other citizens must live.

The truth is that Congress still takes crimes against women too casually, that members do not really think of things like harassment as crimes. This was demonstrated clearly with the disclosure that Connecticut’s Rep. Elizabeth Esty, a Democrat, took three months to get rid of her chief of staff after he threatened to kill a female staffer. Esty is stepping down at the end of her term, but that is not a systemic remedy.

The 22 women senators want the Accountability Act reformed, and the House has been more inclined to do this job than the Senate. The Act “continues to require survivors to endure an antiquated dispute resolution process, including a month of counseling sessions, forced mediation and a 30-day ’cooling off’ period before a victim can make a decision whether to pursue justice in a courtroom or continue with administrative procedures,” the senators wrote. House and Senate staffers are treated differently in the legal aid that is available to them. The House changed the law in February. Inaction in the Senate prompted the 22 senators to speak out.

It also sparked the creation of Congress Too, a congressional staffers group that is agitating for change. The organization wants voluntary counseling and mediation support for accusers plus disclosure of legislator settlements. “Many current and former staff have spoken publicly about their own experiences, often describing a climate of fear, a burdensome and confusing reporting process, and a system designed to protect congressional offices at the expense of victims” the group said.

Does anyone believe that if Mitch McConnell took the issue seriously, or if it were a measure dealing with school prayer or Benghazi, the Senate would have acted with the same dispatch as the House? Granted that the Republican majorities have their hands fully trying to live with a president with grabby little hands of his own, the House still managed to act. Why not the Senate, Mr. Heller?