What Congress Can Learn from Al Franken

What Congress Can Learn from Al Franken
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Credit Zach Gibson for The New York Times

In a different era — say, three months ago — Senator Al Franken could have denied the accusations of sexual misconduct against him, relied on the notoriously plodding Senate Ethics Committee to investigate him and, in the end, probably kept his job.

But we are in the middle of a stunning and welcome cultural shift, and so charges of groping and lewd behavior against Mr. Franken prompted female Democratic senators — a distinct minority in the chamber — to start a campaign that swiftly brought about the announcement on Thursday that he would resign.

“There is some irony in the fact that I am leaving, while a man who has bragged on tape about his history of sexual assault sits in the Oval Office,” Mr. Franken, a Minnesota Democrat, said on the Senate floor. “But this decision is not about me. And it’s about the people of Minnesota. It’s become clear that I can’t both pursue the Ethics Committee process and at the same time remain an effective senator for them.”

Just weeks after dozens of women detailed decades of sexual harassment and assault allegations against the Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, it would seem we are witnessing a long-overdue moral reckoning that — dare we hope? — could drive real change. There is reason for optimism: For the first time in the age-old history of workplace harassment, scores of women are identifying themselves and their harassers and providing proof. They’re telling their stories at great risk and in huge numbers, and nearly every day a powerful man is fired or resigns as a result.

At the same time, though, America’s history of neglecting this abuse of power leaves institutions clumsily trying to catch up, adapting faulty systems for vetting and addressing these claims. A prime example is Congress, reluctant to shed archaic procedures that force victims into counseling and a weekslong “cooling off period,” while protecting accused lawmakers with secret, taxpayer-funded settlements and nondisclosure agreements.

In demanding Mr. Franken’s resignation, the Democratic Party seized an opportunity to atone for its own bad history, including President Bill Clinton’s sexual misconduct and, just last month, foot-dragging by leadership on the fate of Representative John Conyers Jr., the longest-serving member of the House, who retired on Tuesday after multiple allegations emerged, including news that he paid a $27,000 settlement to a woman who alleged he fired her after she refused his sexual advances.

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