WASHINGTON ― A bipartisan group of lawmakers on Capitol Hill unveiled Senate and House bills Wednesday designed to improve the process of reporting sexual harassment involving lawmakers and staffers, building on recent efforts to address the problem within the walls of Congress.
Sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), with several Democratic and Republican co-sponsors in the House, the legislation intends to streamline the convoluted process through which accusers report such incidents, which often discourages them from coming forward. It also includes protections for congressional interns, who are not covered under current policies.
“Zero tolerance is meaningless unless it is backed up with enforcement and transparency,” Speier said at a press conference announcing the bill.
Gillibrand argued that Congress’ current procedure for reporting sexual harassment is “tilted against victims.” Under the new legislation, they would have more protections, including legal counsel.
The Member and Employee Training and Oversight On (“Me Too”) Congress Act is named after the social media hashtag that spread in response to widespread sexual misconduct allegations against a number of prominent men, particularly Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.
After The New York Times and the New Yorker published bombshell reports last month in which women alleged years of sexual abuse by Weinstein, people used the #MeToo hashtag to share their own experiences of sexual harassment or abuse and to show solidarity with accusers.
Among those sharing their stories were lawmakers and staffers on Capitol Hill, where, like in many industries, sexual misconduct has been an open secret.
Speier revealed that as a congressional staffer, she was sexually assaulted by her chief of staff.
At a hearing Tuesday held to review congressional policies on sexual misconduct, Speier also said she knows of two lawmakers whom she claims “engaged in sexual harassment.”
In response to the hearing, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) announced he would mandate annual sexual harassment training for members of the House and their staffs.
Last week, the Senate unanimously passed a resolution establishing similar rules.
By introducing Wednesday’s legislation, Gillibrand and Speier want lawmakers to do much more.
“There is a serious sexual harassment problem in Congress, and too many congressional offices are not taking this problem seriously at all,” Gillibrand said. “Congress should never be above the law. Congress should never play by its own set of rules.”