#MeToo Made Barely a Dent in the Statehouse

I hate to say it, but as far as the Vermont Statehouse is concerned, #MeToo kind of was a fad. At the time, there was talk of serious changes; but in the end, the dynamic is essentially unchanged. From the viewpoint of those enduring harassment, the process is entirely in the hands of lawmakers, there is far more opacity than transparency, and as a result, the process is gathering dust and cobwebs ’cause ain’t nobody using it.

That means one of two things: Sexual harassment is a thing of the past, or the process inspires so little faith that nobody dares to use it. From informal conversations, I can tell you it’s the latter.

This issue hit the front burner thanks to a November 2017 article written by the great Alicia Freese, published about six weeks after the Harvey Weinstein case went nuclear. Freese got female Statehouse staffers and lobbyists to talk about their bad experiences — without names attached due to fear of reprisals. The conclusion: Sexual harassment was simply part of the atmosphere, something they had to be prepared for every day. The incidents ranged from inappropriate comments to propositions to actual assaults.

Afterward, legislative leaders asked the Office of Legislative Counsel (then spelled “Council”) to review Statehouse sexual harassment policy. A month later, Leg Counsel “flagged a dozen significant concerns,” according to a follow-up story by Freese. Chief among the concerns: The panels were made up entirely of lawmakers who might be seen as unfair judges of their own colleagues; complainants were told to confront their (alleged) abuser before filing a formal complaint, which is all kinds of awful; the accused lawmaker had more say in how the case was adjudicated than the complainant; and there was absolutely no transparency to the process.

In the wake of the Leg Counsel memo, then-House speaker Mitzi Johnson promised to institute a “gold standard” policy that would serve as a national example of how to prevent sexual harassment.

Indeed, the Legislature did adopt a reformed process — but the result was a real mixed bag. The bullshit about confronting your abuser was deep-sixed and complainants were given somewhat more say in the process, but the panels are still made up entirely of lawmakers and the process is almost entirely shielded from public view.

I wouldn’t call it a gold standard. Pewter, maybe. The proof: The new policy has gone almost entirely unused, while the work environment remains unfriendly to female staff and lobbyists.

Under the 2018 policy, the House Sexual Harassment Prevention Panel and the Senate Sexual Harassment Panel are required to submit a joint report by the end of each year including the number of complaints received, how many were settled informally, how many were formally submitted, and how the formal cases were disposed of. No identifying information is included in the reports, just the raw numbers.

In the Legislature’s internal disciplinary processes, that’s what passes for transparency.

Anyway, those annual reports are posted online and they show just how unused the process is. In calendar year 2018, the panels received a grand total of one formal complaint. (Somehow they managed to file their half-page report 3 1/2 months late.) Here’s the official account of that single complaint:

The complaint was adjudicated by a Joint Panel, which dismissed the complaint… because the Joint Panel found it did not contain any allegations that may constitute a potential violation of the Policy.

And that’s it. That’s all you’re ever going to know about the nature of the complaint or how the Joint Panel reached its conclusion.

Otherwise in 2018 the panels had nothing much to do. No requests for informal resolutions and no requests for advice on sexual harassment matters.

The report for 2019, which was filed a mere 10 days late, reported no activity. No informal requests, no formal complaints, and no requests for advice on sexual harassment issues.

And, as far as I can tell from the online list of legislative reports, the panels did not file anything for the years 2020 or 2021. Maybe the reports were improperly tagged or someone forgot to upload them; I’ve made inquiries with Legislative Counsel. But it looks like the panels didn’t follow their own policy. Even if they have nothing to report, they’re supposed to file a report by the end of each calendar year. (I’ll update this post if I find out there were reports for the last two years.)

Oh, and while the House panel meets occasionally to consider policy, the Senate panel hasn’t met since February 2018 according to its own webpage.

So things are going just great.

Recently, I’ve been writing a lot about lobbying in the Statehouse. This is another side of that coin. Female Statehouse staffers and lobbyists are on the short end of the power dynamic with lawmakers, who rule the roost. Women who’ve been harassed have to consider the consequences that might ensue from filing a complaint — consequences from making at least one firm enemy and maybe a lot more, to actually losing a job.

This situation is worse for lobbyists because their jobs are based on relationships, and those are based on personal connections and trust. Lobbyists need to be on every lawmaker’s good side. They can’t afford to invite vengeance from the very people it is their job to persuade.

And even if the complainant’s identity is protected, the Statehouse is a small place. A lawmaker might well be able to identify his accuser based on details of the complaint. Worst case, a lobbyist or female staffer becomes known as a troublemaker and loses the trust of the entire Legislature or large swaths thereof. Or their job.

That was true back in 2017. The situation may have improved somewhat since then, but the power dynamic is still in place and the process still inspires no faith in the women who work in the Statehouse. From today’s perspective, #MeToo looks more like a brief shining moment than a turning point in the fortunes of women.

2 thoughts on “#MeToo Made Barely a Dent in the Statehouse

    1. John S. Walters Post author

      I hadn’t seen it. Now I’ve looked it over, and it doesn’t look to me like anything has changed substantially. If I’m missing something, please let me know.

      Reply

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