“It was a system set up in 1995,” California Democrat Jackie Speier recently complained, “to protect the harasser. We say zero tolerance, but I don’t believe that we put our money where our mouths are.” In a 2016 survey by Congressional Quarterly, four out of 10 women reported that they saw sexual harassment as a problem in Congress while one in six had personally been victimized.
What will Congress do about the current mess? Will this be another Anita Hill moment, where Congress fails to implement effective changes after the heat of the scandals fade? If Congress is going to do more than make promises about a changed “culture,” they need to put into place much a stricter and transparent process for handling these cases that holds legislators accountable.
The Member and Employee Training and Oversight on Congress Act, co-sponsored by Jackie Speier and Senator Kristin Gillibrand, is a good start to addressing these problems by raising awareness through mandatory training and strengthening the process to offer more protection to the accuser. According to The Hill, only 10 percent of women working in Congress even know that the process for dealing with harassment exits.
The information surrounding financial settlements and the process through which these are resolved need to provide better mechanisms for allowing the press and the public to know what has transpired. Expenses must be accounted for, as they are in the rest of congressional operations.
The process needs to be streamlined so that it is speedier and less cumbersome, creating less time for workers to find themselves subject to threats from the attorneys of members seeking to protect themselves. The kinds of confidentiality agreements required of accusers must be reformed as well. “Because the process is so broken,” one employment lawyer argued in The Washington Post, “people choose to either not engage in the process or, once they engage it, to settle their claims for a fraction of what their claims are worth, because the process is so traumatizing to people. Who would go through all of this and be muzzled for life for three months’ severance if the system wasn’t stacked [against the victim]? I think the answer is: nobody.”
This is also the moment when there needs to be a full-blown legal debate about whether the separation of power really should insulate Congress from these kinds of tightly-enforced workplace rules or whether there is a way for legislators to be regulated by some kind of external or independent body that can make sure rules are enforced. Given that members are subject to criminal prosecution (as was evident with the Abscam scandal), the protections are not as impregnable as often thought.
A change in the “culture” can only go so far.
Rules, regulations, and enforcement are the only mechanisms that can revolutionize what work is like in the House and Senate, and make sure that the kinds of improprieties becoming public on a daily basis finally become a thing of the past.