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Rep. Dingell: Process for handling harassment complaints in Congress needs “immediate changes”


He denies the accusations that he has harassed women through the years. Yet, Democratic Congressman John Conyers said Sunday he is stepping down as the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee.

To put this move into context, Detroit Free Press Washington reporter Todd Spangler and Democratic Congresswoman Debbie Dingell joined Stateside Monday.

Listen to the full conversations above, or read highlights below.

On what it means to be ranking Democrat of the House Judiciary Committee

TODD SPANGLER: “It’s the House, so the Republicans are in charge. It’s not like Congressman Conyers or the ranking member on Judiciary – or any committee – can make laws happen by themselves. They can’t. But, what they can do is have a great role in helping to shape that legislation in terms of getting certain witnesses before the committee. They also, because they’re the ranking member, have more of a role to play in terms of getting bills that Democrats will want to consider, for instance, before the committee. So, there’s definitely a certain amount of power that goes along with it. Nothing like being chairman – I mean, being chairman’s a much bigger deal.”

On the symbolism wrapped up in Conyers’ move to step down

SPANGLER: “I mean symbolically for Conyers and really for the Congressional Black Caucus, it’s a huge deal for him to step down. I mean, he’s the first African American to sit in that role in the Judiciary Committee. First African-American chairman, previously, of the committee. And you can tell that, from his statement that he’s going to step down, that this is not something that Conyers wanted to do. You know, he’s a legendary civil rights figure...”

On whether this move will quell calls for Conyers’ resignation from Congress

SPANGLER: “I think it will, yeah. I think there will still be plenty of people who say he needs to go, but I think that his stepping down as the Democratic face of the Judiciary Committee will allow him to sort of fade into the background somewhat while this ethics investigation goes on – and that might take months. I mean, there’s no real idea how long that will take. It won’t be quick, I wouldn’t think. And that will take some of the heat off him. I believe that some people will still continue to ask him to resign, but that will cool down somewhat – unless, unless there are more allegations.”

On the Democrats’ delicate dance

SPANGLER: “The Democrats certainly do not want to be seen as helping or supporting someone who’s accused of these sorts of activities or behaviors. At the same time, as with the case of Conyers, particularly, you have someone who’s been a legend in their party and in the civil rights movement for decades. You don’t want to push him out, you don’t want to ... necessarily alienate the Congressional Black Caucus, which is easily one of the most powerful caucuses in Congress, by seeming to too quickly push him aside. So that is a very delicate dance. On the other hand, the Democrats are facing a very important election in 2018 and do not want to be in the position of seeming as if they’re enabling someone who is accused of this sort of behavior.”

On the multiple perspectives at play

DEBBIE DINGELL: “You know, this is all very complicated. And I think we’re having a really complicated discussion in this country. I’m going to take this from different perspectives, because … I think women of – I’m not old, but I’m seasoned – and women of my generation, unfortunately, have too many stories. And there have been men that we have all known that have done good things for people that have also been ... guilty of sexual harassment."

"Every person in this country is innocent until proven guilty. But, we’re at a time in our country – the question is, ‘Is this really going to be a watershed moment?' And so, we have to have a really honest conversation in this country about what is offensive behavior and what behavior crosses the line, and are we going to move to a point that behavior that crosses the line is zero tolerance or not? So, it’s complicated. Congressman Conyers is where [he] belongs – in the ethics committee for a full and complete investigation. It needs to happen very quickly. It cannot just sit there. We need to get the facts. But, I think we’re all struggling in this country with how we deal with complicated issues like this.”

On what some critics say – that Congress’ system for handling claims of harassment and abusive behavior is set up to protect the harasser

DINGELL: “I have been very blunt about this. I did not know about the secret fund that was spoken about at the House Administration Committee probably two weeks ago now. I think most of my colleagues did not know about it. I do not think taxpayer money should ever be used to hide somebody’s inexcusable behavior. I think all of that needs to be open and transparent. And taxpayer money should never be used.”

On whether taxpayers deserve to know which lawmakers have paid settlements

DINGELL: “I do think that they do, but I will say ... I know that there are consequences for survivors if their name becomes public. So, I want to be very careful that there may be people that do not want ... something made public because of a potential harm to themselves, so I want to protect the survivors. But … I think we need to begin to make immediate changes and I hope when we go back tomorrow that is going to be on the agenda for this week in the House. It must be. But I also think that we’ve got to stop doing this in the private sector, that for too many companies they sign these kind of confidentiality agreements too, and that we need to put a window on all of this kind of behavior so people understand what the issues are.”

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