Senate women: Rules on harassment must change

Senate women: Rules on harassment must change
© Greg Nash

The female members of the Senate, who number 21 out of 100, say the Senate’s rules for preventing sexual harassment were written to protect men and need to be changed as soon as possible.

Sickened by the allegations against Sen. Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenShould the Rob Porter outcome set the standard? Grassley, Dems step up battle over judicial nominees Sen. Gillibrand, eyeing 2020 bid, rankles some Democrats MORE (D-Minn.) and Rep. John ConyersJohn James ConyersSchatz's ignorance of our Anglo-American legal heritage illustrates problem with government Dem consultant resigns in face of sexual misconduct allegation Tillerson announces mandatory sexual harassment training for State Dept. MORE Jr. (D-Mich.), the senators have held informal discussions about how best to move forward.

Increasingly, they say the goal should be protecting women in the Senate from future harassment — but that doesn’t mean that Franken will avoid an Ethics Committee investigation or, potentially, a censure vote.

But what happens to Franken — or Republican candidate Roy Moore, who is leading the Alabama Senate race — will be left to the Ethics panel and could take months to resolve.


In the short term, women in the Senate want to take quick action and fire a warning shot at colleagues and senior staff who they feel face little accountability for harassing behavior under the current rules.

“We’ve heard about the procedure that’s in place right now, which is ridiculous,” said Sen. Deb FischerDebra (Deb) Strobel FischerSenate Republicans call on Trump to preserve NAFTA US trade deficit rises on record imports from China Flake, GOP senators to meet with Trump on trade MORE (R-Neb.).

“It needs to be changed and there are a number of us who are visiting about it and getting it done,” she said.

Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharOvernight Health Care: Trump eases rules on insurance outside ObamaCare | HHS office on religious rights gets 300 complaints in a month | GOP chair eyes opioid bill vote by Memorial Day Overnight Regulation: Trump to take steps to ban bump stocks | Trump eases rules on insurance sold outside of ObamaCare | FCC to officially rescind net neutrality Thursday | Obama EPA chief: Reg rollback won't stand Dems seek reversal of nursing home regulatory rollback MORE (Minn.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Rules Committee and Franken’s home-state colleague, is leading a working group made up of members from that panel. She’s also reaching out to other female colleagues in the Senate.

The chamber unanimously passed a resolution co-sponsored by Klobuchar earlier this month that required all senators and staff to undergo sexual harassment training. But senators say more needs to be done.

Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandAmerican women will decide who wins and loses in 2018 elections Dems ponder gender politics of 2020 nominee Calls mount from Dems to give platform to Trump accusers  MORE (D-N.Y.), a leading advocate for victims of sexual harassment in the military, has introduced legislation that would overhaul the Senate’s process for dealing with complaints.  

She is hoping for fast action.

“Our goal is to get bipartisan support in the next two weeks and to hopefully get a vote on it by the end of the year,” she said. 

Her colleagues have yet to decide whether they need to pass a bill that requires President Trump›s signature or whether they can tackle the issue with a resolution that only needs to pass the upper chamber.

“The rules clearly need to be changed here,” said Sen. Debbie StabenowDeborah (Debbie) Ann Stabenow10 Senate Democrats are up for reelection in Trump country At least Alzheimer’s research is bringing Washington together Senate Dems block crackdown on sanctuary cities MORE (D-Mich.).

Stabenow said the procedures for dealing with allegations of sexual harassment “are not transparent” and don’t provide “enough support for victims and the people who come forward.”

Women — and men — who believe they are the victims of sexual harassment in Congress have to go through a lengthy process to lodge a complaint.

Victims have a relatively narrow window to bring a claim — 180 days — and then must undergo 30 days of mandatory counseling before opting for mediation. 

The chief employment counsel would likely represent a lawmaker accused of harassment or an office accused of failing to take appropriate action.

A person filing a complaint would choose their own counsel. 

A Senate aide familiar with the process, however, said the details vary by case and noted the opposing parties are free to decide their representation and other key details.

If mediation fails to reach a settlement, then the person must wait for 30 days before filing a lawsuit or demanding an administrative hearing.

“The process is crazy in that you have to wait up to 90 days to go to court. Most people think of that as burdensome,” said a Senate aide working on the issue.

Women senators say the rules are antiquated and biased.

“The rules were written years ago to protect powerful men,” said a senator who requested anonymity to avoid offending male colleagues.

Gillibrand’s bill would give victims more power by allowing them to choose how to resolve their complaint and by eliminating the requirement for counseling and mediation.

The measure would also establish a confidential adviser to consult with employees who may have been harassed or discriminated against and give the Office of Compliance authority to conduct interviews and gather evidence about possible harassment.

Another female senator said too many women who lodge complaints are treated in a way that is “not serious” and “not transparent.”

“The rules, frankly, were written to protect the people who are here,” she added. “Those are rules that are way outdated.”

Senators were appalled to learn, for example, that Conyers reportedly paid a large settlement to a staffer who accused him of harassment out of his Members’ Representational Allowance — a fund that is supposed to be used for official activities.

“The one thing I was disturbed about in the Conyers thing is that he was allowed to use his Members’ Representational Allowance to pay that settlement and I think that’s something we’re going to take a look at,” said Sen. Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Wellons Moore CapitoAt least Alzheimer’s research is bringing Washington together Overnight Tech: Intel chief says 'no doubt' Russia will meddle in midterms | Dems press FCC over net neutrality comments | Bill aims to bridge rural-urban digital divide | FCC to review rules on children's TV Senators offer bill to close rural-urban internet divide MORE (R-W.Va.), a member of the Senate Rules Committee.

“The process that’s in place now, and I’m learning more about it, is adverse to someone coming forward,” she added. “It’s antiquated, it’s not transparent. I think we all recognize it’s a bad system.”

Senators say the time that victims have to file complaints needs to be lengthened beyond 180 days, noting that many recent high-profile complaints stem from incidents that happened years ago.

For example, Matt Lauer, the longtime co-host of NBC’s “Today,” was fired Wednesday after a colleague accused him of misconduct during coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympics.