Reporters chased Rep. James Clyburn through the halls of Congress on Wednesday, asking how prominent media figures like Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose could be fired so quickly after accusations of sexual harassment surfaced, while Rep. John Conyers remains in office even after three women have accused him of sexual impropriety.
“Who elected them?” replied Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat and a member of the Congressional Black Caucus — which Conyers founded. Then the third-highest-ranking Democrat in the House stepped into a members-only elevator, and the doors closed.
That scene captures the stark difference between the private sector, which survives on the bottom line, and the political world, keeper of the public trust.
The political world — from Washington to Sacramento — is wired to protect its own, conducting ethics investigations in private and shelling out tax dollars to make harassment complaints go away.
It rides in its own private elevator.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., with now-California Attorney General Xavier Becerra.
Meanwhile, while a private company like NBC can act comparatively quickly and dismiss men like Lauer, who allegedly committed “inappropriate sexual behavior,” voters must wait until Election Day to dismiss the people we elected.
“It really comes down to money,” said Brad Adgate, who has been a media analyst for four decades. “You get next-day results in media. You get ratings the next day. If your ratings tank, that means your audience goes elsewhere.”
“Whereas in politics, (Minnesota Democratic Sen.) Al Franken has until 2020,” Adgate said, until he faces re-election. Franken has been accused of inappropriately touching four women. “He can survive for three years, not three days.”
But it’s not just about money. It is about the system. Private companies with human resources departments that field and investigate complaints are light-years ahead of the political world. In politics, it’s largely incumbent on politicians to investigate one another.
“There has been a hesitancy for congressional colleagues to call out and punish their own,” said Kelly Dittmar, a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Camden in New Jersey and a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics. “The culture they’ve created is sort of all about peer protection. They’re thinking, ‘Today it’s you, Al Franken, but tomorrow it could be me.’”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco was widely criticized for apparently defending Conyers when she called him “an icon in our country” last Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Analysts said it sounded more like a tone-deaf defense from someone in the old boys’ club rather than a longtime champion of women’s rights.
“It was disappointing,” said Lisa Garcia Bedolla, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley. “Sometimes, (politicians) see each other as fellow warriors serving together in the trenches. That makes it harder for them to discipline each other.”
Pelosi has since changed her tune, tweeting Wednesday, “Zero tolerance means consequences — for everyone. No matter your contribution to our country, you do not get a pass to harass or discriminate.”
She is now working behind the scenes to persuade Conyers to leave Congress immediately, according to a senior Democratic strategist with knowledge of the situation.
California’s Legislature is starting to grapple with sexual harassment in much the same way.
“What everybody here knows is that we have rapists in this building,” Christine Pelosi, chairwoman of the California Democratic Party Women’s Caucus and Nancy Pelosi’s daughter, said Tuesday at an Assembly hearing on sexual misconduct by lawmakers and men who work in and around the Capitol in Sacramento.
Everybody may know it’s happening, but at Tuesday’s hearing Assembly employees couldn’t coherently explain how many complaints have been received or for how long.
“We do not track complaints,” Debra Gravert, the Assembly’s chief administrative officer, said at Tuesday’s hearing.
“Isn’t that problematic, that we don’t track complaints?” asked Assemblyman Vince Fong, R-Bakersfield, a member of the rules subcommittee hearing the testimony.
Gravert initially said she had not received any sexual harassment complaints against a lawmaker in her 3½ years on the job. But after lawmakers pressed her, she said she has received a “handful” of complaints against current lawmakers over the past couple of weeks.
Then, at the end of the five-hour hearing, Gravert apologized for testifying that the Assembly does not retain records beyond six years. She clarified that “we keep records beyond that time,” even though the policy allows for discarding them after six years.
It seems that any woman — or man — would have little confidence that a harassment claim would be adequately addressed under such circumstances.
“It really is the fox guarding the henhouse,” said Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore. “Our institution — we are protecting people who are guilty of a lot of horrible things. It is a system set up to protect the legislators, not the victim.”
Republican Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez has sponsored a whistle-blower bill that has failed to pass for four years.
For four years, Melendez has proposed legislation to toughen up whistle-blower laws to protect people who work in the Capitol. It has passed the Assembly but never made it through the Senate. She was never told why.
This year, in this environment, it has a good chance. Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, has said the Senate will pass whistle-blower protections when the Legislature returns in January.
That took four years. The private sector, at the least, has incentives to get rid of alleged sexual predators much more quickly — even if those incentives are not always noble. Lauer and Rose were fired because they were bad for the brand. Variety magazine and the New York Times were both working on exposes of Lauer, so it seems likely that NBC decided to cut its losses.
That’s harder to do in politics, where little moves quickly.
“It can be easier for a network head to cut ties with somebody, because there’s a distance between them, too. They’re not friends. It’s management and talent,” Garcia Bedolla said. “That’s not the case in politics. They often see each other as equals.”