Congresswomen Lead Sexual Harassment Reform Effort

Rep. Jackie Speier listening to Tom Perez at a 2014 Department of Labor event. (Public domain by the Department of Labor.)

Sexual assault and harassment allegations have grown to national prominence impacting Hollywood, the media and now extending all the way to Washington.

As more and more victims come forward to speak about their instances of dealing with sexual harassment, the #MeToo movement has grown to allow victims to speak candidly about their sexual assault experiences, oftentimes calling out the perpetrators.

The campaign has inspired some members of Congress to take a stand against sexual harassment, adopting the movement’s name as the title of the ME TOO Congress Act.

The ME TOO acronym stands for Member and Employee Training and Oversight On Congress Act, and is being spearheaded by Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.

The bill was introduced on Nov. 15, a week before Buzzfeed reported the House’s longest-serving representative, John Conyers, D-Mich., settled a 2015 sexual harassment and wrongful dismissal complaint. Even with the settlement, Conyers has denied the claims of sexual harassment.

The bill is intended to completely reform the manner in which sexual harassment is dealt with on Capitol Hill, through increased transparency, mandatory sexual harassment training, and increased support for victims.

This issue is particularly personal for the author of the bill, Speier, who recently revealed that she faced a form of sexual harassment during her time as a congressional aide in the 1970s.

Gillibrand also has a personal connection to the cause and revealed in her 2014 autobiography that a male senator inappropriately grabbed her waist after she lost weight, making an unwarranted comment about preferring girls chubby.

A wave of congresswomen have since come forward with their own stories regarding sexual harassment, demonstrating the need for drastic reform in Congress.

As it stands now, if a staffer wishes to file a complaint they must go through months of mediation with the employing office in which they are required to sign a document to make all communications confidential.

After going through the mediation process, the victim can either file the complaint in court or have an administrative hearing that would lead to a settlement.

That settlement would then be issued out by the Treasury Department, and it is reported that in the past decade, the department has doled out $15 million in harassment related settlements.

The process is incredibly prolonged and burdensome and has been said to explicitly oppress women.

Speier spoke about the issue on CBS’s “Face the Nation” and said, “it’s worse in part because we have a system in place that allows for the harasser to go unchecked, doesn’t pay for the settlement himself and is never identified.”

Additionally, she said, “The Office of Compliance, to which the victim must apply or complain, is a place that has really been an enabler of sexual harassment for these many years because of the way it’s constructed.”

Speier and Gillibrand are proposing a process that is much more straightforward and transparent that would make the mediation period optional and mandate that the complaint must be filed 180 days after the alleged violation.

They also want to ensure that the complainant receives a paid leave of absence or is able to work remotely while going through the process.

Furthermore, the act would aim to rename the Office of Compliance to the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights, which would have to create an online reporting system. This system would then have to report the names of the employing offices as well as the size of the settlements on the website.

Under the act, interns or fellows would be entitled to the same protection.

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