The Senate's Sexual Harassment Bill Has Gone Nowhere — And Advocates Say Time's Running Out
Thursday marks 100 days since the House of Representatives unanimously passed a bipartisan bill to change the way sexual harassment complaints are dealt with on Capitol Hill. But a Senate sexual harassment bill that Senator Kirsten Gillibrand introduced in December has yet to see the light of day.
Gillibrand (D-NY) introduced the Congressional Harassment Reform Act on December 14, during the height of the #MeToo movement's sweep through Washington. Earlier that month, Gillibrand had made waves within her own party by spurring the resignation of Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) after multiple women accused Franken of groping and other inappropriate behavior. (Franken denied "some" of the allegations and stepped down from office.) At the start of December and as #MeToo dominated the national conversation, six members of Congress stood accused of sexual misconduct.
"If this Congress ends without final action...we have to start at square one in both the House and the Senate."
Now, advocates for reforming Congress's decades-old sexual harassment policy are concerned the will for change has faded.
"It becomes really hard to see something passing before the end of the year if it doesn't happen very soon," says Kristin Nicholson, a former chief of staff who worked on Capitol Hill for 20 years. In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein allegations last fall, Nicholson and another former Hill staffer circulated a letter to lawmakers in leadership positions demanding changes in the way sexual harassment is defined and dealt with in their former workplace. More than 1,500 former Capitol Hill staffers signed it.
"We wanted to take some of their burden, the current staff, and advocate from the outside," Nicholson says.
With the midterm elections fewer than six months away, and with summer recess on the horizon, lawmakers have few working days left to tackle any remaining work, including Gillibrand's six-month-old sexual harassment bill, which has stalled in the Senate. Lawmakers are reportedly looking to address the issue before Memorial Day, but time is running out.
"It is a bit of a surprise that this momentum fell flat once it went over to the Senate."
"The danger with that is, if this Congress ends without final action... Nothing that happened in the House will matter," Nicholson says. "And at that point we have to start at square one in both the House and the Senate."
The House of Representatives took action in early February, unanimously passing the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 Reform Act, which spells out changes to the way victims' complaints are handled. While House members were able to change some rules within their own chamber immediately, and while both chambers have passed resolutions requiring mandatory anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training, the Senate needs to act in order to reform the 1995 law. Larger rules governing both chambers of Congress can't take effect until the Senate passes a bill, the two are reconciled, and a final version is sent to the President's desk for his signature.
"It is not unusual for something to pass the House and for it to then sit in the Senate for a long time," Nicholson says. "But for this issue, there was so much movement and attention... It is a bit of a surprise that this momentum fell flat once it went over to the Senate, particularly because in the Senate there seems to be a good deal of bipartisan agreement that this is problem and at least some consensus on how it can be addressed."
In March, all 22 woman senators signed a letter to McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer demanding a vote on the legislation. The group of Republican and Democratic women wrote to Senate leadership:
Survivors who have bravely come forward to share their stories have brought to light just how widespread harassment and discrimination continue to be throughout Capitol Hill. No longer can we allow the perpetrators of these crimes to hide behind a 23-year-old law. It’s time to rewrite the Congressional Accountability Act and update the process through which survivors seek justice.
The bipartisan group of women senators described the current process, which includes a month of counseling, forced mediation, and a month-long "cooling off" period, as "antiquated" and onerous for victims.
"Employees on the Hill who are subject to the Office of Compliance just don't seem to be as well versed in their rights...as the employees of the executive agencies," says Alan Lescht, a Washington, D.C. attorney who represents congressional and federal employees in harassment cases.
While more than a dozen lawmakers in both parties have come forward to support Gillibrand's legislation, one sticking point has emerged: a provision that would require members of Congress to repay the U.S. Treasury for sexual harassment settlements. Currently, settlements are paid using taxpayer dollars.
"If a FedEx truck hit you while you're walking across the crosswalk, you're not expecting the driver to foot the hospital bills. FedEx pays your hospital bills," says Les Alderman, who represented Lauren Greene in a lawsuit against Rep. Blake Farenthold in 2014. Alderman thinks the federal government should continue to pay for individual Congress members' settlements, and is ambivalent about whether Congress members should then be required to reimburse the payment.
"These are federal employees doing the harassing and the discrimination, and therefore their employer should be on the hook for their misdeeds," he says.
The Office of Compliance, which addresses sexual harassment claims on Capitol Hill, has paid victims more than $17 million since it was created in 1995. That sum represents the total for all settlements, including discrimination cases.
Alderman sees flaws in the House bill that passed in February, but is a fan of Gillibrand's proposed legislation. "This doesn't upset the apple cart," Alderman says of the Senate legislation. "It makes some improvements I think on the reporting side of things and the confidentiality side of things. It addresses the issues better and it doesn't try to create a new bureaucracy at the Office of Compliance, which is going to bog down the claims and victims."
He, too, is worried that enthusiasm has slowed on the HIll.
"It could be that the political game isn't there anymore," Alderman says, "because the movement has slowed down a little bit. The [stream of] new high-publicity cases seems to have slowed down, and so maybe that's taking some of the impetus away."
The Republican women have made clear that they support it. ... There's been public, bipartisan support on this."
Gillibrand has said publicly that she believes her bill would pass if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would agree to put it up for a vote. Bustle has reached out to Sen. McConnell's office for comment.
"I don't think Mitch McConnell is much of a victim's rights advocate," Alderman says on why he thinks the bill hasn't gotten a vote.
Nicholson, who spent decades working on the Hill, says she doesn't know why McConnell hasn't brought the bill to a vote. "I don't know whether McConnell has his own concerns about it and that's why he's not bringing it up, or if he's acting out of concern of other members, or concerns that have been brought to him by other members," Nicholson says. "The Republican women have made clear that they support it. ... There's been public, bipartisan support on this."
She adds, "It's a mystery to me why this wouldn't be considered an easy win for everybody."