The sexual harassment scandal that has been gripping Capitol Hill for the last few weeks has given way to an even more widespread scandal: the cover-up culture. Over the past several months, as Americans have learned about rampant sexual misconduct and harassment in Hollywood, the media, Silicon Valley, and in academia, we have begun to learn about similar misconduct on Capitol Hill. But in the case of Congress, the sexual harassment scandal is also intertwined within a narrative of abuse of power and a flagrant disregard for taxpayers.
Just a few weeks ago, Americans learned (and saw photographic evidence) that Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenFranken targets senators from both parties in new comedy tour Al Franken on another Senate run: 'I'm keeping my options open' Andrew Cuomo and the death of shame MORE, before he was elected as senator, sexually demeaned a woman while she was asleep in a chair. What the former comedian thought was a funny joke was a form of humiliation to his victim. Since then, three other women have come forth to accuse Franken of conduct unbecoming.
The first revelation is that Rep. John ConyersJohn James ConyersThe faith community can help pass a reparations bill California comes to terms with the costs and consequences of slavery Democrats debate timing and wisdom of reparations vote MORE (D-Mich.) allegedly sexually harassed women, including his own staff members. But this scandal comes with a different twist. Rather than use the designated “shush” fund, Conyers used his own office budget (again, all taxpayer-funded money) to pay off at least one woman, a former staffer who alleges the congressman repeatedly asked for sexual favors. To disburse the hush money, Conyers added her to his books as a “temporary staffer,” paid her the sum of $27,111.15, and then removed her from the payrolls.
A second, and closely related, scandal is the news that Rep. Raul Grijalva (R-Ariz.) used taxpayer funds to silence a staffer who claimed the congressman’s drunkenness contributed to a hostile work environment. Relying on the House Employment Counsel, the House’s legal counsel, Grijalva provided a “severance package” of $48,395. The severance package in question was developed and disbursed outside of the House Ethics Committee’s rules governing severance packages.
So in the span of a month, Americans have learned about three distinct “shushing” methods that members of Congress use to funnel taxpayer dollars to silence and pay off their accusers, the Office of Compliance with its designated “shush” fund, the individual members own allocations for office funds, and the off-the-books severance packages orchestrated by Congress’s lawyers. And at the center of all of it are the laughably weak Ethics Committees in both the House and the Senate.
Proof that the congressional Ethics Committees are toothless and more symbolic than anything else? Sen. Franken (D-Minn.) called for an ethics investigation into his own misconduct. Perhaps he was emboldened by the fact that the Senate Ethics Committee has not issued a single public punishment against a senator in the past 10 years.
Capitol Hill has a sexual misconduct problem, yes, that’s undoubtedly true. But Congress’s deeper, systemic problem, is that it has deliberately walked away from one of our nation’s founding principles, which is accountability. Our founding fathers had clear eyes when it came to assessing human nature. Human beings are fallible and susceptible to corruption, and James Madison said as much in his writings. The genius of the American system of government is that it fully acknowledges human nature, and then works to harness, rather than deny, human proneness to wrongdoing.
The system of separation of powers, as Madison articulated in Federalist 51, was put in place to “control the abuses of government” with each branch holding the other in check. What these recent scandals highlight is that over decades, the legislative branch has become a law unto itself, policing itself, writing its own set of rules, and shrouding everything in secrecy so there is no chance of accountability, either from the other two branches of government or from taxpayers.
Americans, who have unknowingly paid the bill for countless sexual harassment settlements, have a right to know which offices have used taxpayer funds to cover up misconduct, which members of Congress have benefitted from the “shush” fund, and which members have found their own devious ways to cover up scandals
In addition to exposing the past abuses, Americans have a right to know that going forward, Congress will adhere to strict rules of conduct or else face transparent punishments for their wrongdoing. Congress frequently gives lip service to the idea of accountability. But the ethics committees prove how vital it is for accountability of Congress to originate outside of the legislative branch.
The greatest source of accountability, of course, comes from the American voters. When Americans are not left in the dark about Congress’s shameful misconduct and abuses of our taxpayers, we serve as a far better check on wrongdoing than any ethics panel ever could.
Jenny Beth Martin is chairman of Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund.