Opinion

Sexual impropriety in Congress isn’t a surprise

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Years ago, I worked for a woman just a few years older than I am. She was an experienced professional communicator who had extensive experience in Washington, including a stint working on Capitol Hill for a very influential congressman.

One afternoon, I was sitting in her office with another female employee who had similar experience herself. After discussing the project we were working on, the conversation drifted to a more casual one. As often happened, the topics drifted to telling stories about what each of us had seen and experienced in our time in politics.

As I sat listening, my boss began talking about her time in Congress, and we all started to joke about how terrible many of the people who are elected officials are. This was — and is — a pretty common refrain from anyone who has worked in politics. Seeing the sausage-making up close has a way of souring your opinion of those involved in the sausage-making.

But the conversation turned dark when she began describing what it was like working as a woman in Congress. Stunned, I listened to this woman — who was very attractive — recount stories of having to walk through crowds of slimy, crude, disgusting congressmen to deliver a message to the person she was working for.

Unwanted touching. Lewd comments. Outright propositions. To listen to this was shocking and vile. My mouth hanging open, the other woman joined in and told stories just as horrific about her own experiences.

Now, I’m not naive. I’m well aware that sexual harassment takes place. And I’m also aware that politics is a hypersexualized business, and that many of the people who lead this country are morally bankrupt. But I will admit, to hear these women matter-of-factly describe just how brazen these men were, how little they cared about being caught, and just how awful and over the line their behavior was in full view of hundreds of other people, I was taken aback.

This was years ago, and perhaps worst of all, these women seemed resigned to this type of treatment as the “cost of doing business” of being able to build a career in public service.

Flash forward to today. Sen. Al Franken has been accused by multiple women of sexual harassment. Rep. John Conyers is now facing the same. Even former President George H.W. Bush, who would have been pretty high on my “least likely to sexually harass people” list, has gotten into hot water recently.

This is the first stage of the scab being ripped off in the world of politics, and there is a lot of puss. There are plenty of fantastic people who would never dream of abusing anyone serving in Congress, but of all places in our society, this behavior is more rampant in politics than anywhere outside Hollywood.

And why?

Well, it starts with what I wrote about last week — the selective excusing of horrendous behavior based on the politics of the offending individuals. When people on the opposite side of the political aisle do things, we call for their heads. When our own people do it, we justify their behavior by saying that their votes or their job performance is “too important” to throw aside.

But it goes deeper.

We are now learning about a secretive congressional slush fund that helps members of Congress and their staffs buy off — with taxpayer money — people who are accusing them of sexual harassment. Congress has paid out more than $17 million dollars to 268 staffers over the past two decades.

And do we know what those payouts were for? To who? Why? Do we know how bad some of these accusations were? Do we know who was involved? The answer is, of course, no.

Like so many other things, Congress has set up a special set of rules for themselves that do not apply to the rest of the country, meant to protect themselves and their political interests.

So we have an entire industry made up almost entirely of young, very often attractive staffers who are subordinate to this country’s most powerful people, who seem to be populated by moral reprobates with a grossly outsized sense of entitlement, backed up by a secret, taxpayer-funded slush fund that protects the powerful, and an American public that circles the wagons around reprehensible people simply because of their politics.

What, precisely, did we expect to happen? And people wonder why most Americans of all political persuasions want to “drain the swamp”?

Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.

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