WASHINGTON ― All 22 female U.S. senators on Wednesday lambasted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) for inaction on reforming arcane policies on sexual harassment involving lawmakers and staffers.
In a letter spearheaded by Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) and Patty Murray (Wash.), and signed by every female senator, the bipartisan group presses Senate leaders to act on legislation that includes policy changes approved by the House last month.
The Senate’s “inaction stands in stark contrast to the bipartisan effort in the House of Representatives,” the senators wrote, expressing “deep disappointment that the Senate has failed to enact meaningful reforms.”
The House and the Senate, prodded by the Me Too movement and by a cascade of lawmakers announcing resignations or retirements after sexual misconduct allegations in recent months, have grappled with ways to address policies that are skewed toward alleged harassers.
In the House, lawmakers in February unanimously passed legislation amending the Congressional Accountability Act, including provisions banning lawmakers from using taxpayer funds to settle sexual harassment claims, providing more legal support for accusers, and eliminating a requirement for mediation.
However, the Senate has yet to take up a version of the bill. Lawmakers also failed to include language about sexual harassment and discrimination in last week’s spending deal, after disputes over details.
Gillibrand, who has been outspoken about sexual misconduct, criticized congressional leaders for removing language from the spending agreement and urged the Senate to consider her bill “immediately.”
“It begs the question: Who are they trying to protect?” Gillibrand said in a statement last week after the spending bill language was removed. “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.”
The bipartisan group of female senators on Wednesday wrote that the urgency of the issue was clear.
“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,” they wrote.
Read the full letter below:
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.