Over the past six months, Americans have come to understand the galling ubiquity of sexual misconduct and how such misdeeds are too often swept under the rug. Now some of the most powerful women in the United States are saying they’ve waited long enough to address these issues at their own workplace.
All 22 female members of the Senate, Republicans and Democrats, are demanding the chamber’s leadership stop stonewalling an overhaul of Congress’s byzantine method of handling complaints of sexual harassment against members of Congress and their staffs under the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995.
“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,” these senators wrote in a letter to Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer, the Senate’s majority and minority leaders. “No longer can we allow the perpetrators of these crimes to hide behind a 23-year-old law.”
Some of the procedures outlined by the 1995 law protect harassers more than they do victims. Before those complaining of sexual harassment can pursue a lawsuit or an administrative hearing, for instance, the law requires them to undergo counseling that typically lasts about a month, followed by a roughly 30-day mediation process, then to wait at least another month.
The reform bill before the Senate, which the House already passed, would streamline that process by eliminating those counseling and mediation requirements.
The female senators also complained that while the House passed a resolution in February under which it would pay for legal representation of harassment victims there, victims in the Senate would get that benefit only if the reform bill passed.
The reforms are apparently being held up because Mr. McConnell does not like a provision that would require lawmakers to use personal funds, rather than taxpayer money, to settle sexual harassment complaints, as is now the case.
That’s right — for years, the American public has been paying for the misconduct of individuals on Capitol Hill. Between 2008 and 2012 alone, the federal government spent at least $174,000 to settle such claims in the House.
Mr. McConnell reportedly formed his opposition to the provision, which he denied after the letter was released, after listening to the concerns of some of his Senate colleagues.
Will he give the same weight to the concerns of sexual harassment victims?
While Mr. McConnell once took a tough stance on sexual misconduct, including within his own party, he has also led congressional Republicans in closing ranks around President Trump, who has bragged about sexually assaulting women, and he holds dangerously misguided views about the challenges women face in society.
“I could be wrong, but most of the barriers have been lowered” for women, he said in 2014. He was, in fact, wrong — women continue to face a wide range of inequalities, including a high likelihood of being sexually harassed at some point in their lives.
That’s one reason Mr. McConnell should listen to his female colleagues and swiftly bring this bill to a vote. This is about seeking justice for victims of a crime that historically has been allowed to run rampant, and holding to account those who commit it. Lawmakers and their staffs should not get special treatment in that regard.
The reform bill won’t solve the problem of sexual harassment in America, but it would help some victims and signal that the issue is being taken seriously by many of the nation’s most powerful people.