Female members of Congress are calling on their male colleagues to create a culture that in the Capitol that is safe for everyone. It is rare when you find bipartisanship on anything, so this call for safety is extraordinary on many levels.
All twenty-two Democratic and Republican women of the U.S. Senate called on Senate leadership to bring legislation that would update and strengthen the procedures available to survivors of all forms of sexual harassment and discrimination in congressional workplaces before the full Senate. The House of Representatives passed bipartisan legislation in February aimed at preventing sexual harassment and discrimination in congressional workplaces and helping the survivors of these acts seek justice. A recent survey found that four out of ten women congressional staffers believe that sexual harassment is a problem on Capitol Hill and one out of six women in the same survey responded that they have been the survivors of sexual harassment.
“Everyone deserves to work in an environment free from harassment and discrimination,” the senators wrote. “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 letter to Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) led by U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Patty Murray (D-WA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY). It was also signed by Ranking Members Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO), as well as Members of the Rules Committee Working Group Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), Deb Fischer (R-NE), Catherine Cortez-Masto (D-NV). Signers also included Susan Collins (R-ME), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Tina Smith (D-MN), Joni Ernst (R-IA), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Kamala Harris (D-CA), and Maggie Hassan (D-NH).
The letter sent to the leadership and their male colleagues was sharply worded, writing:
Dear Leader McConnell and Senator Schumer:
We write to express our deep disappointment that the Senate has failed to enact meaningful reforms to the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995. We urge you to bring before the full Senate legislation that would update and strengthen the procedures available to survivors of sexual harassment and discrimination in congressional workplaces.
Everyone deserves to work in an environment free from harassment and discrimination. In November, with your leadership, the Senate took an important first step in the effort to end harassment and discrimination in congressional workplaces with the passage of S. Res. 330, which requires anti-harassment and discrimination training for all Senators and staff at least once each Congress. While this training requirement was a significant step to address workplace harassment, there was broad, bipartisan agreement at that time that more had to be done to support survivors.
Although the Congressional Accountability Act (CAA) implemented meaningful reforms when it became law in 1995, it continues to require survivors to endure an antiquated dispute resolution process, including a month-long counseling session, forced mediation and a 30-day “cooling off” period before a victim can make a decision whether to pursue justice in a courtroom or continue with administrative procedures. The time has come to rewrite the CAA to provide a more equitable process that supports survivors of harassment and discrimination.
The Senate’s inaction stands in stark contrast to the bipartisan effort in the House of Representatives that led to the passage of bipartisan CAA reform legislation in February. The House bill includes a number of important provisions, such as eliminating waiting periods before a victim can take their case to court, increased transparency for awards and settlements, and a requirement that Members of the Senate and House pay for an award or settlement stemming from a case of sexual harassment or discrimination that they personally commit.
When the Senate considers CAA reform legislation, we will also have the ability to address an inequity that now exists between House and Senate staff. The House of Representatives passed H. Res. 724 that provides House staff who are survivors of harassment or discrimination access to free legal representation. Senate staff who face similar harassment or discrimination must pay personally for legal representation or represent themselves through complicated legal proceedings. Therefore, the Senate must act quickly to provide Senate staff with the same resources as their House colleagues.
Inaction is unacceptable when a survey shows that four out of 10 women congressional staffers believe that sexual harassment is a problem on Capitol Hill and one out of six women in the same survey responded that they have been the survivors of sexual harassment. 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.
Thanks to the office of Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) for providing context for this story.