In Politics, Decisions On Sexual Harassment Allegations A Slow Process
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
More high-profile allegations of sexual assault. New York's Metropolitan Opera has suspended its conductor after he was accused of sexually abusing three teenage boys. Accusations against James Levine go as far back as the late 1960s. He is the latest in a string of high-profile men accused of sexual assault or harassment. But while there have been swift firings and resignations for figures in the worlds of entertainment and media, such public accusations against members of Congress haven't had the same result. NPR's Tamara Keith explains why.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose were out almost as soon as the allegations against them were made public, in part because their alleged behavior created PR and economic problems. But as accusations about members of Congress come out, they've so far been able to hang onto their jobs.
LARA BROWN: We have to remember that business does not operate like the government.
KEITH: Lara Brown is director of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University.
BROWN: The government is a democracy, and what that means is that these individuals who are incumbents or are elected officials, they have been put there by voters.
KEITH: Voters who get their say every two, four or six years. Brown looked at the electoral fortunes of House members who've faced scandals - all kinds - going back to 1966. And what she found is if they didn't succumb to pressure to resign, their chances of staying in office were pretty good.
BROWN: About two-thirds of members with scandals end up surviving when they do run for office.
KEITH: Case in point - Gerry Studds, a Democratic congressman from Massachusetts who had a central role in the 1983 congressional page sex scandal.
BROWN: He had a relationship with a 17-year-old congressional page. In the wake of it, he also came out as being gay, and he was censured by Congress for his behavior, but he also won re-election in Massachusetts.
KEITH: Studds continued to be re-elected and served in Congress until 1997, says Brown.
BROWN: So the electoral process ends up insulating incumbents from the effects of scandals because most partisans would prefer to have a member who is not so great from a character standpoint but good on their issues.
KEITH: California Democrat Jackie Speier is leading the push to update the way the House handles sexual harassment.
JACKIE SPEIER: You know, when a CEO of a company is found to have sexually harassed an employee, they don't wait until the next annual meeting so that the shareholders can determine whether or not he should go. It's determined by the board of directors.
KEITH: In this analogy, the shareholders are the voters and the board of directors would be the House and Senate ethics committees, which can recommend that members of Congress be censured or even expelled. But unlike a board of directors, the ethics committees don't exactly have a history of swift justice. Meredith McGehee runs Issue One, a nonpartisan organization that describes itself as trying to fix democracy.
MEREDITH MCGEHEE: Their standard operating procedure, or their M.O. if you will, is to put these way on the back burner and hope everybody forgets about it. But I don't think that's going to be the case here. They want to get it dealt with. So I would expect that they will be looking to move with a speed that they'd never show in many other instances.
KEITH: But fast by congressional standards is still slow compared to the private sector, and that's why some in Congress are putting pressure on colleagues to hurry up and resign. Tamara Keith, NPR News.
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