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Analysis: As corporate America fires alleged sexual harassers, Washington stumbles over how to punish its transgressors

Cathleen Decker, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Political News

WASHINGTON -- American corporations in recent weeks have scythed through the ranks of alleged sexual harassers, dispatching personalities as powerful as movie producer Harvey Weinstein and television anchor Matt Lauer, who was swiftly fired on Wednesday after a credible accusation of sexual misbehavior.

But in Washington, the growing public intolerance for harassment has tied politicians in partisan pretzels, and left them grappling for a way to assess guilt and mete out consequences.

Several factors have slowed the political response.

In the sharply divided Capitol, partisanship inevitably affects how cases are viewed. So does a reluctance to sit in judgment of peers who are longtime friends and allies. Congress also has more than a whiff of entitlement, accustomed to operating by its own rules while other organizations rush to protect themselves from liability.

Beyond that, some lawmakers argue that voters, not colleagues, should serve as the ultimate judges of those under scrutiny.

When Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., was asked Wednesday about the difference between quick actions taken against non-politicians and lagging moves against members of Congress like Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, he blurted out one line:

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"Who elected them?" he said, referring to the private-sector figures.

But the slow response also reflects a political system struggling to sort out the nuances of wrongdoing on a topic that until recently was kept mostly under wraps.

Melanie Sloan, a Washington ethics lawyer who accused Conyers of gender discrimination when she worked for him decades ago, said, for example, that she saw his case and that of Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota, accused of grabbing several women's buttocks during photo sessions, as distinct.

With Conyers, Roy Moore, the Alabama Senate candidate who is accused of inappropriate contact with teenaged girls, and President Donald Trump, "you have to tar everyone with the same brush," she said.

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