As the #MeToo movement swept from Hollywood to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. late last year, it revealed some troubling things. Not only does Congress have a serious sexual harassment problem, but it has also paid out $17 million in taxpayer money over the past 20 years to alleged victims in exchange for their silence. And, because the whole process for handling sexual harassment complaints was apparently designed to hide them, most members of Congress didn’t really know the full extent of the problem.
Faced with this, the House of Representatives recently passed sweeping amendments to the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 aimed at addressing the problem of sexual harassment on Capitol Hill.
House Bans Relationships Between Lawmakers and Employees
The first thing the House did as it passed legislation related to the amendments of the Congressional Accountability Act was to ban sexual relationships between lawmakers and employees. The prohibition was spearheaded by Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va., and went into effect immediately. It also aligns Congressional harassment policies with those used in the military and by private companies.
An End to the Congressional Sexual Harassment Settlement Fund
One of the main sections of the legislation ensures that taxpayers are no longer on the hook for payments made to settle sexual harassment complaints against members of Congress. Under the amended law, a lawmaker will have 90 days to reimburse the Treasury for any payments made from the fund, even if he or she has left office. Anyone who fails to pay will have their wages garnished. Lawmakers will also not be able to use their office budgets to settle complaints.
Other Reforms and Resolutions to Curb Harassment, Support Employees
The new legislation will also pull back the curtain of secrecy that has kept many in the dark about the extent of sexual harassment on Capitol Hill and, according to many, allowed it to flourish unchecked. Twice a year, Congress will now publish a list of member offices that have reached sexual harassment settlements in the previous six months.
In addition, the amendments end the practice of forcing staffers and aides to participate in counseling and mediation before being able to file harassment claims or federal lawsuits. They will also be able to work remotely while their complaints are investigated. Interns and fellows are also now protected by the Congressional Accountability Act. The House bills also established a new Office of Employee Advocacy to support employees who file complaints and provide legal assistance as well as consultation and representation.
Finally, members will be expected to establish and implement an anti-harassment policy for their offices and participate in training sessions.
All Eyes Now on the Senate
Even though the House passed its amendments quickly and through a bipartisan process, the reform legislation has since stalled with the Senate. Hopefully U.S. Senators take up the bills soon to put these much-needed amendments into law.
Sexual Harassment Is a Problem in All Workplaces
One of the most powerful and important consequences of the #MeToo movement has been how quickly it exposed systemic problems with sexual harassment and abuse in all workplaces. Though it started with revelations about Harvey Weinstein, women from all backgrounds and industries soon began speaking up to say that it has happened to them as well. No workplace, it seems, is immune.
Congress has made a start to clean up its problem, but more work must be done, and the laws passed by the House must now be affirmed by the Senate – and then followed and enforced.
In taking swift action on the issue, the House has sent a clear message to all employees across the United States that they do not have to deal with sexual harassment or abuse on the job or be silenced about their experiences. They have the right to come forward, make their accusations, be heard, and also pursue litigation.