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Pelosi Bungles #MeToo

On Meet the Press yesterday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi declared a “zero-tolerance” policy on sexual harassment. Minutes later, she broke her own policy.

When Pelosi was asked about reports that Democratic Michigan Rep. John Conyers sexually harassed and abused women who worked in his D.C. office, she defended him saying John Conyers was “an icon” who had “done a great deal to protect women.” (Last week, a Buzzfeed investigation uncovered that four former staff members signed affidavits attesting that Conyers had made sexual advances to female staff and touched them inappropriately; Conyers even paid a $27,000 complaint to a woman who reported that she was fired for refusing Conyers’ sexual advances.)

Pelosi — the leading Democrat in the House, and the highest ranking woman in Congress — had a chance to demonstrate real leadership, show common cause with the #MeToo movement, and send the message that harassment was not welcome in her caucus. Instead, she ceded Democrats’ moral high ground on harassment for… what, exactly? Because John Conyers is on the team?

What if we supported victims of sexual harassment regardless of whether or not it’s politically convenient to do so?

Pelosi’s comments regurgitated tired talking points used to dismiss allegations against predators every day. Pelosi said that Conyers will “do the right thing” and that he did “great work” on the Violence Against Women Act — implying that Conyers is a “good guy” who would never abuse women, never mind the fact that seemingly good men abuse women every single day. She brushed them off, saying, “Was it one accusation? Was it two?” (Is one woman’s career derailed by sexual harassment an acceptable sacrifice for a nice guy who votes the right way?)

Pelosi also defended Conyers by saying she was waiting on “due process.” To be clear: people accused of sexual harassment and violence should absolutely get a fair investigation and hearing process. But Congress’ sexual harassment process is anything but — it’s systematically tilted in favor of abusers and designed to cover harassment up.

Victims on Capitol Hill have to file any complaints within 180 days later and sign a gag order before a complaint can begin. Then, victims have to go through months of mandatory counseling, then another 30 days of “mediation,” and then wait another 30 days before they can have have a hearing or file a lawsuit. That means victims may have to work with harassers for months after filing a complaint before action is taken. It also means that harassers have months to retaliate against victims, pressure them into quietly taking a settlement, or intimidate witnesses into silence. That’s the process that Conyers’s victim went through. At the end of it, she told Buzzfeed, she was “basically blackballed” from jobs on the Hill.

Conyers isn’t the victim of an unfair process — she is.

For Pelosi, invoking due process is a dodge. If Congress really wanted to ensure there was a fair investigation into Conyers’ behavior, they could hold hearings, put Conyers under oath, and subpoena witnesses. (Republicans could also do the same thing to Roy Moore or Donald Trump.) Pelosi could call for a special, robust investigation, but she hasn’t. Instead, Conyers will be investigated by the House Ethics Committee, a toothless body that can take years to resolve complaints and which other Democrats have pointed out doesn’t provide real accountability.

In context, Pelosi’s call for due process looks like it’s really about opposition to any real investigation, real process, or real accountability at all. There’s no fair process when the system is designed to never give out justice.

And to rub salt in the wound, Pelosi cast doubt on the women who reported the harassment. When Meet the Press host Chuck Todd asked her if she believed them, Pelosi responded, “I do not know who they are, do you?” But as Pelosi knows perfectly well, the woman who reached a settlement with Conyers is prohibited by Congress’s own rules from publicly coming forward.

After Pelosi’s widely-criticized interview, Conyers yesterday agreed to temporarily relinquish a powerful leadership position on the Judicial Committee while the Ethics investigation was ongoing. Pelosi has also supported legislation to reform Congress’ sexual harassment investigations. But it feels like too little, too late.

Pelosi says she’s an advocate for women. If she means it, she’ll retract what she said. She’ll call for a real investigation — and real consequences — for Conyers’ harassment. And she’ll call on Congress to void every single non-disclosure agreement it forced to a victim to sign, allowing all of them to come forward. We should know who’s settling their sexual harassment lawsuits with our tax dollars.

Establishment Democrats would be wise to shape up and start taking harassment in the ranks seriously. Women, especially women of color, are the Party’s base, and are leading anti-Trump organization and making the overwhelming majority (86 percent!) of calls to Congress. Without the base, Democrats are done. Protecting sexual harassers, because they’re part of the party establishment, is a good way to lose us.

Image via Meet the Press.

Sejal Singh is a columnist at Feministing, where she writes about educational equity, labor, and reproductive justice. Sejal is a Policy and Advocacy Coordinator for Know Your IX, a national campaign to end gender-based violence in schools, where she has led several state and federal campaigns for student survivors' civil rights. In the past, Sejal led LGBT rights campaigns for the Center for American Progress. Today, she is a student at Harvard Law School and a frequent speaker on LGBTQ rights and civil rights in schools.

Sejal Singh is a law student and columnist at Feministing, writing about educational equity, labor, and reproductive justice.

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