Starting at 2 p.m. Jan. 8, though hopefully years earlier, the Legislature will be galvanized over the issue of respectful interaction between legislators, legislative staff, lobbyists and young legislative interns.
The issue, of course, is the result of complaints of sexual harassment or obviously improper interaction between interns and others in the Statehouse. The Women’s Foundation of Kansas City, which is advising legislative leadership on interaction in the workplace — yes, the Statehouse is a workplace — last week issued recommendations for the 2018 Legislature, which starts Jan. 8.
This issue is atop finding an answer to the likely $600 million price tag for a constitutional school funding formula, seeing a potential change of occupants in the governor’s office, plus highways, health care for the poor, just about everything else the state does.
The sexual harassment issue is focused on those college kids who are getting their feet wet in seeing how a Legislature actually operates, the ins and outs and shuffles and tradeoffs and concessions made almost daily by people who are elected to the Legislature. It’s different than in the schoolbooks.
The issue itself evaporates if Statehouse denizens would just behave the way their mothers taught them, be polite and respectful, and not use one’s authority to harass or embarrass those who aren’t elected by a majority of voters in their districts. We’re guessing no candidate’s palm cards note the office-seeker is handsy.
Just telling the occupants of the Statehouse to act right and respectfully isn’t going to solve the problem. The Women’s Foundation of Kansas City is going to find itself with some political power to dispense because among its recommendations is to increase the number of women in leadership roles at the Capitol.
Leadership in the Statehouse is determined by votes, or almost as often by close working relationships based on trust — and votes.
What seems simple good behavior becomes more difficult when “fraternization” includes interns, legislative staff, elected officials and lobbyists. It’s the hall talk, the dinners and drinks, the fraternization that has long been the oil in the machine. There is good respectful fraternization and the other kind based on gender and power.
Oh, and the Women’s Foundation also is suggesting accountability and monitoring of sexual harassment, ranging from definitions of sexual harassment to safe reporting of that conduct, to representation and respect for complainants and consequences for violators. Oh, and no secret settlement deals to hide those who harass others.
Lots of work, but it all comes down to respectful behavior, and finding some way to define that.
The issue is serious, needs to be dealt with, but it also provides a grandstand for legislators who offer up bills dealing with the subject and, of course, higher visibility for the Women’s Foundation which wants more women in leadership roles in government, elected and appointed, and a broader base of government leaders that for decades in Kansas has been powerful, or at least relatively powerful, men.
What happens? Look for lawmakers to find ways to take public, well-orchestrated positions in favor of respectful treatment of women in the Statehouse. Ever think that just being respectful like they were taught as children turns out to be a campaign issue? Most probably wish that it wasn’t necessary.
Kansans, of course, want the collegiate legislative interns and others respected. The trick for lawmakers will be to balance needed work on the issue with an otherwise full plate of spending, budgeting, and representing and protecting their districts. Very little is very simple in the Statehouse. We’ll see how this comes out.
Syndicated by Hawver News Co. of Topeka, Martin Hawver is publisher of Hawver's Capitol Report.