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September 24, 2018

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OPINION:

Congress must overhaul harassment policies

It has been nearly a year since allegations of rampant sexual harassment and assault by powerful individuals overwhelmed social media and drove the media’s spotlight to the #MeToo movement. The women who are leading this movement continue to have a transformative effect on our culture and our elections nationwide.

In the past year, survivors have felt empowered to share their stories in the face of a society that for far too long demanded their silence, called them liars and protected the perpetrators. As a result, powerful men (and several women) from Hollywood to athletics, the restaurant industry to factory floors and everywhere in between, have been held accountable for their actions.

However, despite the power of the movement and the obvious need for reform, Congress has failed to take sufficient action to reform its own internal sexual harassment policies. According to a 2016 CQ Roll Call survey, 4 in 10 female congressional aides say sexual harassment is a problem, and 1 in 6 staffers say they personally have been victimized.

But some members of Congress have been stonewalling important provisions that could protect targets of sexual harassment on Capitol Hill, in particular pushing to continue the potentially fraudulent practice of settling harassment complaints using taxpayer dollars instead of their own money. In failing to protect legislative staffers and hold its own members accountable, Congress has shown itself to be startlingly behind the times.

Congress’ inaction is unacceptable, especially given that more than half a dozen of its members have resigned in the past year because of allegations of inappropriate behavior, including former Reps. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas; John Conyers, D-Mich.; Trent Franks, R-Ariz.; and Pat Meehan, R-Pa.; and former Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn.

To date, the House of Representatives and Senate each have passed bills intended to reform the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 (CAA), the law that governs how Congress handles cases of discrimination and harassment, including sexual harassment. These reforms are needed, yet the Senate and House bills dramatically differ in their approaches. The House’s legislation is imperfect, but it contains robust provisions to ensure that survivors can access justice, while the Senate bill is considerably weaker.

For example, the House bill prohibits members of Congress from using taxpayer funds as hush money for settling claims of discrimination or harassment. But the Senate bill provides a loophole that still allows members to continue the sneaky practice.

Farenthold, who resigned in April, used $84,000 in taxpayer funds to settle a sexual harassment case with a former staffer and never repaid taxpayers even though he promised to do so. There is no reason regular Americans should foot the bill for members of Congress who are accused of sexually harassing their staff.

As both chambers attempt to agree on a compromise bill to send to the president’s desk, reform efforts have stalled. Reporting indicates that several factors have contributed to this breakdown, including senators remaining adamant that they do not want to be held liable for repaying taxpayers.

Congress must agree on legislation to protect their staffs and the reputation of our representative institutions with strong transparency and accountability provisions as quickly as possible. Congressional staffers deserve to feel safe against harassment in the workplace and know that protections are in place should they face such inappropriate behavior.

Lisa Gilbert is vice president of legislative affairs at Public Citizen. Craig Sandler is program associate at Public Citizen’s Congress Watch. They wrote this for InsideSources.com.