Lawmakers unveil ‘ME TOO Congress’ bill to overhaul sexual harassment policies
A pair of female Democratic lawmakers introduced legislation on Wednesday that would overhaul policies to combat and report complaints of sexual harassment on Capitol Hill.
The Member and Employee Training and Oversight On Congress Act (ME TOO Congress) Act, authored by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), would require sexual harassment awareness training and reform the process available for staffers to file complaints.
“There is a serious sexual harassment problem in Congress, and too many congressional offices are not taking this problem seriously at all,” Gillibrand told reporters in the Capitol.
Changes to Capitol Hill’s attitude toward sexual harassment comes as a growing number of female lawmakers come forward with stories of predatory behavior by male members of Congress.
Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) announced Tuesday that the House will adopt a policy to mandate sexual harassment awareness training for members and staff. The Senate already moved last week to pass a measure requiring the training for its members and employees.
The change to House policy will also occur through legislation, but it’s unclear whether it could be the bill unveiled on Wednesday or a more narrow measure previously introduced by Speier only requiring the training.
Under the current system through the Office of Compliance, staffers must go through months of mediation and counseling with the employing office before they can file a complaint. During the mediation process, the parties involved sign an agreement to keep all documents and communications confidential.
If they decide to go forward with a complaint, they can either file it in court or seek an administrative hearing that can eventually lead to a settlement.
Settlement payments are issued out of a special fund operated by the Treasury Department. Speier said on MSNBC on Wednesday that $15 million in harassment settlements, which include for racial and religious discrimination complaints, had been paid over more than a decade.
Speier and Gillibrand are proposing to make the counseling and mediation optional and set a deadline for filing a complaint to 180 days after the alleged violation.
They also want to require an employing office to allow a complainant to work remotely or authorize a paid leave of absence if requested. In addition, their bill would require the Office of Compliance, which would be renamed the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights, to create an online reporting system.
Members of Congress accused of harassment would also have to repay the Treasury for the settlements paid to victims.
The Office of Compliance would then publish the names of employing offices and the monetary amounts of settlements on its website.
Unpaid workers on Capitol Hill like interns, fellows and pages would be eligible for the same protections under the legislation as full-time staff.
Reps. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.), Ann McLane Kuster (D-N.H.) and Bruce Poliquin (R-Maine) have all signed on as co-sponsors.
Speier previously revealed that a chief of staff forcibly kissed her when she worked as a congressional aide in the 1970s.
She testified before the House Administration Committee on Tuesday that at least two current members of Congress have been accused of sexual harassment.
Speier declined to name either of the lawmakers, who are of both parties, and said she has not tried to confront them out of concern for protecting the victims.
Rep. Linda Sanchez (Calif.), the vice chairwoman of the House Democratic Caucus, told The Associated Press this month that a male colleague repeatedly ogled her and touched her inappropriately on the House floor when she was a newer member. She said that lawmaker is no longer in Congress.
She also said that another male lawmaker tried to proposition her. Sanchez told reporters on Tuesday that she learned to avoid the colleague, who she said still serves in Congress, and advised other members to do the same.
Gillibrand previously shared in her 2014 autobiography that after she lost weight, a male senator came up behind heir, squeezed her waist and said, “Don’t lose too much weight now. I like my girls chubby!”
Another of her Senate colleagues, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), revealed on Tuesday that she had been sexually harassed while working as an intern on Capitol Hill. McCaskill said that she learned to avoid elevators because “elevators were when you were captured.”
Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) also told a story at the House Administration Committee hearing about sexual harassment on Capitol Hill of a current male lawmaker who exposed himself to a young female staffer. Comstock said she heard the story secondhand from a trusted source and did not know the lawmaker’s identity.
Kuster, who appeared alongside Gillibrand and Speier on Wednesday, acknowledged she had kept quiet about a sexual assault when she was a staffer by a “guest of the Congress” for nearly four decades.
Kuster said she hadn’t even told her husband or best friends about it until last year, when a letter by the still-anonymous sexual assault victim of a Stanford University swimmer and the allegations by a student at a New Hampshire boarding school gained national attention.
For a long time, Kuster said, women of her generation didn’t want to draw attention to their experiences with sexual harassment or assault in the workplace. But eventually she realized that nothing would change if victims don’t come forward.
“I became convinced that our generation and our silence makes us complicit in this environment of rampant sexual assault and sexual harassment in the workplace,” Kuster told reporters.
“So we’re here to say ‘No more.'”
This story was last updated on Nov. 17 at 1:59 p.m.