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 Franken (D-Minn.) and Rep. John Conyers 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.

{mosads}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 Fischer (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 Klobuchar (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 Gillibrand (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 Stabenow (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 Capito (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.

Tags Al Franken Amy Klobuchar Deb Fischer Debbie Stabenow John Conyers Kirsten Gillibrand Senate Sexual harassment Shelley Moore Capito
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