Staff Columnist

Time's up for Congress' harassment overhaul

The U.S. Capitol building is seen reflected in a puddle at sunrise on the day of the U.S. midterm election as voters go to the polls across the country to elect 33 U.S. senators and all 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, U.S., November 6, 2018. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)
The U.S. Capitol building is seen reflected in a puddle at sunrise on the day of the U.S. midterm election as voters go to the polls across the country to elect 33 U.S. senators and all 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, U.S., November 6, 2018. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

It seems unbelievable that after nine members of the 115th Congress had to step aside following allegations of sexual misconduct — and after the U.S. House found unanimous bipartisan support on a bill in February and members of the U.S. Senate followed suit in May — Congress has been unable to send much-needed updates on sexual harassment and discrimination to the president’s desk. Yet here we are.

To put the timeline in better perspective, consider that actor Ashley Judd’s allegations against Harvey Weinstein were part of a groundbreaking news story on Oct. 5, 2017. Within a week, movie producer Isa Hackett accused Roy Price, head of Amazon Studios, of sexual misconduct, forcing his resignation.

Then, on Oct. 15, 2017, actor Alyssa Milano posted on Twitter: “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” The hashtag #MeToo had begun, adding to a movement by the same name that had been launched by Tarana Burke in 2006. Women across the globe began sharing their experiences with sexual harassment and misconduct. Three days into the sharing, Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney tweeted about being sexually assaulted by former team doctor Lawrence Nassar, who was later sentenced to 60 years in prison.

As more victims came forward, more people in positions of power were dethroned. Before 2017 ended, allegations had been publicly aired against Republican Senate nominee and former judge Roy Moore, comedian and actor Louis C.K., newsman Matt Lauer of the “Today” show, U.S. Rep. John Conyers, humorist Garrison Keillor of Minnesota Public Radio, record producer and entrepreneur Russell Simmons, U.S. Sen. Al Franken, chef and television personality Mario Batali and entertainment design firm founder and CEO Gary Goddard.

This year, more names followed — far too many for my allotted columns of newsprint. So, focusing solely on members of Congress, a total of four Democrats and five Republicans were forced out. In addition to Franken and Conyers, the list includes Reps. Blake Farenthold, Tim Murphy, Trent Franks, Elizabeth Esty, Joe Barton, Ruben Kihuen and Patrick Meehan.

Adding to these violations was a perceived breach of public trust when it was revealed that members of Congress and other federal officials used funds within the Office of Compliance to pay off victims of sexual misconduct, discrimination and other misbehavior — more than 260 settlements totaling more than $17 million since the agency was created in the 1990s. This use of public (read: taxpayer) money was made legal by the inaptly named Congressional Accountability Act, a 1995 law that continues to govern sexual harassment complaints for members of Congress, their staff members and many more federal employees.

It’s also one of the key reasons why legislation aimed at rewriting these rules has stalled, despite the passage of two bipartisan reform bills.

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The House version would make individuals accused of sexual harassment personally responsible for any financial agreements and settlements. It also significantly simplified what victims referred to as an onerous reporting process that required months of counseling and arbitration. All those making allegations would be provided free legal counsel under the House bill.

The Senate bill emerged months later, and offered significantly different remedies. Instead of making lawmakers responsible for all settlements stemming from allegations of sexual harassment, senators narrowed the scope to include “unwelcome harassment” (Isn’t it all?) or a situation that interferes with work performance or creates a hostile working environment. Lawmakers would be allowed additional review before they’d have to pay up — and even then the lawmaker would need to pay only for compensatory damages. Instead of offering accusers legal counsel, the Senate bill provides a “confidential adviser,” barred from providing legal advice. The Senate also kept some measures in place to prevent an accuser from immediately filing an official complaint that could lead to a settlement, and would prevent the public from knowing what members of Congress had settlements paid from the fund before the reforms were enacted.

If lawmakers can’t come to an agreement and merge their bills soon, both versions will expire. The process will need to begin again once the new Congress is seated in January — if lawmakers choose to move forward with reform.

l Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 368-8513, lynda.waddington@thegazette.com

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