Female senators revive effort to change culture of sexual harassment on Capitol Hill
A letter from all 22 female senators to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., demands action to reform the secretive decades-old system for handling sexual harassment claims on Capitol Hill. The move aims to drive the issue back to the forefront of public debate months before an election that experts say could be swayed by female voters and candidates.
“We write to express our deep disappointment that the Senate has failed to enact meaningful reforms to the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995,” the female senators said. “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.”
They contrasted the Senate’s paralysis on the issue with the House, where the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 Reform Act passed by unanimous voice vote last month. That bill would increase transparency of awards and settlements and require members to pay settlements for sexual harassment and discrimination that they personally commit.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., has proposed a harassment reform bill in the Senate. She, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., spearheaded the writing of the letter.
“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,” the letter stated.
The senators also called for the chamber to address a disparity created by a recent House resolution that provides House staff who are victims of harassment and discrimination with access to free legal representation while Senate staff have to pay for their lawyers or represent themselves.
Experts on women and politics say the stalled legislative progress was predictable, but the women of the Senate presenting a united front might shake legislation loose.
“On the one hand, given the bill passage process, we probably shouldn’t be surprised by that,” said Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University, of the delay. “In general, it is tough to get laws through Congress by design.”
If female lawmakers continue to make the issue difficult for McConnell to ignore, they may have the leverage to force change.
“What’s different in this case is you have a bipartisan group of senators who are holding their leadership to account to make sure that this bill doesn’t die the slow death many bills do,” she said.
With the sheer amount of chaos and activity in Washington on any given day right now, Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University, is unsurprised that sexual harassment is no longer the center of attention. However, in a contentious election year with female candidates and female voters atypically energized, it could prove important.
“This issue will get attention this year if women in powerful positions, including the U.S. Congress, keep it in front of viewers,” she said.
Vanessa Tyson, assistant professor of politics at Scripps College, suggested the issue has been shunted to the background because male officeholders do not want to face it.
“Sexual harassment and assault are so incredibly pervasive and far-reaching on both sides of the aisle that some individuals in power prefer to protect their party interests rather than hold their predatory colleagues accountable,” she said.
The male Senate leaders responded to the letter Wednesday by asserting that they too want action, but the path forward remained hazy.
"We strongly agree that the Senate should quickly take up legislation to combat sexual harassment on Capitol Hill,” Schumer said in a statement.
McConnell’s office did not respond to a request for comment. Spokesman David Popp told other outlets a bipartisan group continues to work on legislation, but there is no timeline for advancing it.
"Sen. McConnell supports members being personally, financially liable for sexual misconduct in which they have engaged," Popp told Politico.
Given the ostensible support from leaders in both parties and the 30 bipartisan co-sponsors signed onto Gillibrand’s bill, some had hoped a version of provisions from her legislation or the unanimously-passed House bill would be included in the 2,232-page omnibus spending bill that Congress sent to President Donald Trump last week.
Negotiators reportedly came very close to agreeing on sexual harassment reforms to be added to the bill, but House members have blamed senators for balking on the issue. Gillibrand lashed out at leadership last week over the omission of her reforms, which she suggested were stripped out at the last minute.
“It begs the question: Who are they trying to protect?” she said in a statement. “I can’t think of any legitimate reason to remove this language other than to protect members of Congress over taxpayers and congressional employees. Nothing about this should be controversial at this point.”
A McConnell spokesperson denied that there had ever been any agreement to include the language.
According to a Senate Democratic aide, Republican objections kept the measure out of the omnibus bill.
One concern that was reportedly raised on the Senate side is that the House bill would require lawmakers to pay their own settlements for discrimination claims as well as sexual harassment. House aides told Politico senators sought a “dramatic weakening” of the language.
Gillespie called the apparent effort to delineate harassment and discrimination settlements a “distinction without difference” in this context because both are abuses of power and they are very often intertwined.
“I see all the behavior as being reprehensible and behavior that individual members need to be held responsible for personally…. That’s the type of hairsplitting that members of the public would actually find untenable,” she said.
After reporting on decades of alleged sexual assaults and harassment by film producer Harvey Weinstein last fall opened floodgates of misconduct claims in entertainment and other fields, members of Congress were among those whose careers were promptly washed out.
Under intense pressure from Gillibrand and others within his own party, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., announced in December that he would resign following claims by several women that he groped them while posing for photos and accusations by a radio host that he kissed and groped her during a 2006 USO tour.
Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., then the longest-serving member of Congress, also stepped down after a secret settlement with a former staffer was revealed and at least six other women accused him of inappropriate behavior. He denied the allegations, but Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and members of the Congressional Black Caucus called for him to resign.
Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., also resigned after he was accused of asking female staffers to be surrogate mothers for his wife and him. In a resignation letter, he acknowledged that he was insensitive to how discussing surrogacy would make staffers uncomfortable, and he did not want to face “a sensationalized trial by media.”
Signs that the drive to hold lawmakers accountable for harassment might fade emerged fairly quickly. Despite multiple claims of sexual misconduct involving teenage girls in the 1970s, Roy Moore refused calls to step down as the Republican nominee for a Senate special election in Alabama. Though Moore lost some prominent GOP endorsements, President Trump backed him aggressively.
After the Alabama election, which Moore lost, Franken supporters and four of his fellow senators pressed him to reconsider his resignation, complaining that he was a victim of a hypocritical rush to judgment by his Democratic colleagues. Franken left office in January, saying in a defiant Senate floor speech that he could not effectively represent his state while undergoing an ethics investigation, but he believed he would have been cleared of wrongdoing.
Others who fell under a harsh spotlight in November and December have also weighed walking back their public commitments.
Facing multiple claims of harassment, Rep. Ruben Kihuen, D-Nev., announced in December that he would not seek reelection in 2018. Earlier this month, claiming constituents were urging him to run again, Kihuen publicly vacillated on that decision. He ultimately decided not to run.
Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, one of the first members whose settlement of harassment allegations using taxpayer dollars was made public, pledged on December 4 to “hand a check over this week to probably Speaker Ryan or somebody and say, 'Look, here's the amount of my settlement. Give it back to the taxpayers.'”
Nearly four months later, the $84,000 settlement paid to a former staffer on his behalf remains unreimbursed. Citing advice from his legal counsel, he initially said he was awaiting passage of the House bill reforming the CAA before making the payment.
After the House bill was passed, Farenthold’s office said he was waiting until the final bill is passed and made law before deciding how to proceed. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., sent a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., earlier this month urging him to ensure that Farenthold pay the money back.
“The speaker has reiterated to Mr. Farenthold that he needs to keep his promise to repay taxpayers for the settlement,” a Ryan spokesperson told the Huffington Post when it reported on the letter.
Farenthold has also reportedly wavered on his plan to serve the rest of his term before stepping down. If he resigns sooner, he would evade a pending House Ethics Committee probe of his conduct.
According to Gillespie, there is a collective responsibility to ensure that Congress does not return to business as usual over time.
“I think there’s always that risk, so it’s incumbent upon people of goodwill to make sure that these issues don’t go away,” she said.
The issue is likely to endure longer and carry more weight this time than it has in the past.
In the wake of the 1991 Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings and harassment claims by Anita Hill, Bystrom observed, a record number of lawmakers resigned, leading to the largest increase in the percentage of women serving in Congress ever in 1992.
“Then what happened is it did disappear after that, and it disappeared I think because we didn’t have the social media that we have now,” she said.
The #MeToo movement is still strong, allegations against powerful men continue to emerge, and the media frenzy over Stormy Daniels is a reminder that President Trump’s treatment of women remains a subject of intense interest.
Though some fear election-year pressures will keep Congress from passing much significant legislation between now and November, Bystrom suggested refusing to address this issue carries its own political cost for the GOP majority.
“The Republicans need to have something they can run on, quite frankly, if a Democrat brings this up in 2018,” she said.
Even if success is not imminent, the women of the Senate have staked out their position with this letter, and according to Tyson, they have made clear they are in this for the long haul.
“Politics and policy change is a marathon, not a sprint,” she said.