Hearings are being held. Experts are being consulted. Legislation is being crafted. In mid-November, a bipartisan group of House members introduced the Me Too Congress Act, spearheaded by Jackie Speier. Shortly before the December break, 20 Senators, led by Kirsten Gillibrand, introduced a nearly identical bill titled the Congressional Harassment Reform Act. As lawmakers settle back into work this month, a second bipartisan House plan is being readied by Administration Committee Chairman Gregg Harper. (“We are looking to introduce the bill soon,” his office told me this week.)
Almost everyone, it seems, wants a piece of this action.
Long-time reform advocates are thrilled by the new urgency. “This conversation is in such a different place than it was even six months ago,” said a Democratic Senate staffer involved with the effort. “It’s insane how much more willing people are to talk about the types of things that had been getting swept under the rug.”
“If only everything could be done this way,” said an aide to Speier. “It has been remarkably bipartisan.”
Oh, sure, there has been some grumbling. Early on, a small, vocal cluster of lawmakers opposed requiring public disclosure of settlements and making individual members financially liable for settlements. (Currently, a Treasury slush fund is available for handling such unpleasantness.)
“They were quickly put in place by Ryan and Pelosi,” said Speier’s aide. “Leadership of both parties realizes one of the things the American public is united on is that there has to be transparency and members have to take responsibility.”
Or as multiple people wryly observed: The public may not get worked up about lawmakers’ harassing staff, but they are furious that their taxes are being used to cover up the mess.
So what will all this bipartisan energy amount to? Outside experts say there is much to admire in the current bills. They all seem “fairly comprehensive,” said Maya Raghu, Director of Workplace Equality for the National Women’s Law Center. And all focus on bringing transparency and accountability to the existing joke of a system (which protects the interests of members rather than complainants). But they are just “first steps,” said Raghu. To really clean things up, say reformers both on and off the Hill, Congress needs to address some larger accountability issues.
Having studied harassment-related issues for years, lawmakers like Gillibrand and Speier came to this effort with a solid sense of do’s, don’ts, and common pitfalls. (Also handy: In 2016, the EEOC released a report on workplace harassment, including best practices and tips on effective training. ) In addition, their teams have spent much time of late trying to identify and address “loopholes” specific to misbehavior on the Hill, say aides.
Reform advocates point to several important elements of the emerging legislation: A point of contact would be designated to whom targets of harassment could report problems. No longer would complainants be required to undergo 30 days of counseling and 30 days of mediation. Mandatory non-disclosure agreements would be done away with (though complainants could request confidentiality). Settlements would neither be kept secret nor paid out of a slush fund. Legal protection would be extended to unpaid staff, such as pages and interns. Anti-harassment training would be mandatory, and climate surveys would be regularly conducted to track overall progress and problems.