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Damning double standard in Congress on sexual misconduct

Sen. Al Franken left the Senate floor after delivering his resignation speech on Thursday.WASHINGTON POST PHOTO BY MELINA MARA

The dam broke for Senator Al Franken of Minnesota on Wednesday, after a former Democratic congressional aide told Politico that he tried to forcibly kiss her after taping a radio show in 2006. Although that was three years before Franken took office, the details of the anonymous staffer’s allegation reek of macho entitlement and predatory behavior.

She said Franken, then sowing the seeds for a political future in Minnesota’s Democratic Farmer Labor Party, pursued her after her boss had left. When she turned the forced kiss aside, he reportedly told her: “It’s my right as an entertainer.” That account is disturbing enough on its own, but it is particularly grotesque because it echoes the open mic conversation between Donald Trump and Billy Bush on “Access Hollywood.”


It’s clear that the so-called Weinstein effect — women unmasking sexual harassment and sexual assault by powerful men — has reached some of the loftiest levels of government, bringing long-overdue attention to horrific behavior and abuse. Democratic dominoes are beginning to fall: On Tuesday, Representative John Conyers Jr., the 88-year-old civil rights icon, announced he would resign immediately, after several aides had accused him of harassment. Although Franken denied the accusation by the former congressional staffer, his Senate colleagues — led by Kirsten Gillibrand, the New York Democrat — decided that enough was enough and called on him to quit.

By the time Franken announced his resignation, on Thursday morning, more than half of Senate Democrats had added their voices to Gillibrand’s. Despite his track record working on issues like the bipartisan 2013 Violence Against Women Act, Franken’s future was rightly seen as unsustainable. And in case there were any doubts, his exit speech demonstrated that it was high time for him to go: It was notably graceless and hollow, and managed to dodge responsibility while casting aspersion on the victims.


Yet this disgraceful behavior infects both sides of the aisle. Republican Trent Franks said Thursday he is resigning from Congress in early 2018 amid an ethics committee investigation of remarks he made to two female staffers about surrogate pregnancy. That’s a start, but Republicans have been silent about other serious allegations of sexual misconduct. Last week, for example, it was reported that Representative Blake Farenthold, a Texas Republican, paid $84,000 to settle a sexual harassment claim. But Speaker Paul Ryan, who had earlier called for Conyers to go, has yet to comment — or weigh in on Farenthold’s future.

Congress should hold itself to a higher standard than Trump, who is now testing the nation’s credulity by insisting that the voice on the damning tape wasn’t his. It’s difficult enough to sort out the right response to different levels of alleged behavior — and the proper penalties. But that conversation, as urgent as it is, must also be bipartisan. The slow-motion hearings on overhauling the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act, which traumatizes victims, need to speed up. And, ultimately, Republicans need to reckon whether they’re willing to condone sexual misconduct in the highest office of the land in order to retain their grip on power.