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Opinion: Now McConnell Believes the Women

Comments in response to allegations against Roy Moore

Alabama Republican Senate nominee Roy Moore, is questioned by the media in the Capitol on October 31, 2017. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Alabama Republican Senate nominee Roy Moore, is questioned by the media in the Capitol on October 31, 2017. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Senate Republicans are suddenly grossed out by their Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore and his conduct 30 years ago, when five women say he either sexually assaulted them, sexually harassed them, or simply tried to date them when he was a single deputy district attorney in his 30s and they were teenagers, one as young as 14 years old.

Moore has completely denied the accusations, but did allow in an interview with Sean Hannity that if he had ever dated a teenager when he was in his 30s, he would only have done it “with the permission of her mother.”

Not satisfied with that explanation, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell spoke in Kentucky on Monday and called for Moore to drop out of the Senate race.

“I believe the women,” he told reporters. But it’s not clear what changed McConnell’s mind since last week, when he said Moore should end his campaign “if the accusations are true,” implying that the women might, in fact, be lying.

A seismic shift

Make no mistake how groundbreaking McConnell’s statement is, even if he is late to the call. For a Senate majority leader to say the words, “I believe the women,” is a sea change for an institution that has, over decades, amassed policies, procedures and precedents that do everything but believe the women, from the process a staffer still has to go through to file a sexual harassment complaint right down to the paperwork they file that may as well have “If you say so” stamped across the top.

McConnell and other Republican leaders like Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, have their own reasons for coming out against Moore — how they did and when they did, including the fact that they might really, finally, believe the women. But there is no explanation for the refusal of congressional leaders to wake up to the sexual harassment that has been embedded in the culture of Capitol Hill for decades, if not longer, and to insist on a workplace that no longer tolerates it.

A CQ and Roll Call survey of staffers taken in July 2016 showed how pervasive harassment remains on Capitol Hill. Forty percent of the women who responded said they believe sexual harassment is a problem on the Hill, and 15 percent, one in six, said they had been subjected to harassment themselves. But the story by Roll Call’s Erin Bacon also showed that sexual harassment in personal and committee offices on Capitol Hill is drastically underreported compared to institutional offices like the Architect of the Capitol or the Capitol Police, where people’s bosses aren’t also the name and face of the office they work for.

It doesn’t take a particularly deep dive to understand why a staffer would be reluctant to step forward, starting with the structure of Hill offices, where young staffers, many in their first jobs, may be living out a dream to work in the Capitol in the first place. Most of the more senior staff have known the members for years or decades. Some are family friends. All have more power than the junior staffers will ever enjoy in that office.

Old ways die hard

The policies that Capitol Hill offices live by are equally antiquated, with a totally different set of standards from other federal employers, with rules and consequences written by members of Congress themselves. This is despite at least half a dozen incidents of serious sexual misconduct in offices where few, if any, staffers felt empowered to report the harassment. Sexual harassment training for Hill offices remains voluntary, online, and confusing, despite a recommendation since 1996 from the Office of Compliance to make the training mandatory.

The unwillingness to believe the women, or men in some cases, seeps right down to the paperwork a staffer fills out to file a complaint with the OOC, which instructs staffers to detail the “alleged incident” including the “date of the alleged incident,” “time of the alleged incident,” the “location of the alleged incident,” and the name of the “alleged harasser.” Once a victim reports an incident, it’s the victim, not the “alleged harasser,” who is required to undergo 30 days of counseling before going any further.

Several bills have been introduced to change at least part of the equation for staffers on the Hill.

A bill by Sens. Charles Grassley and Amy Klobuchar requiring mandatory training for all forms of harassment for senators, staff and interns passed the Senate last week, but hasn’t gone further than that.

The Grassley-Klobuchar bill was silent on changes in the House. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Mich., introduced a House-specific training bill, but it hasn’t seen much action. And Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., recently said she’ll introduce legislation to change the reporting process for victims to make it easier to come forward. Obviously, it’s just the beginning, but even introducing the concept of changing the reporting process is a start in the right direction.

For all of the controversy that the accusations against Moore have kicked up in Washington this week, the irony is that if Moore ends up in the Senate, he’ll be joining an institution much like himself, even though both sides swear it’s not true — antiquated, largely self-interested, and not particularly concerned with the victims of sexual harassment until a scandal threatens to bring them down.

At least in the case of McConnell, he’s finally come forward to say the words staffers on Capitol Hill have been waiting to hear from leadership for decades: “I believe the women.”

Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.

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