All 22 female senators, Republicans and Democrats, penned a joint letter to Senate leaders complaining of their "deep disappointment" that the Senate has "failed" to push through sexual harassment reform for congressional workers.
"Inaction is unacceptable when a survey shows that four out of 10 women congressional staffers believe that sexual harassment is a problem on Capitol Hill and one out of six women in the same survey responded that they have been the survivors of sexual harassment," reads the letter, addressed to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
A slew of sexual harassment complaints against politicians became public as part of the #MeToo movement. Sen. Al Franken and Reps. John Conyers and Trent Franks resigned following public allegations of sexual harassment. And Reps. Ruben Kihuen and Blake Farenthold said they will not seek reelection in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against them.
"Survivors who have bravely come forward to share their stories have brought to light just how widespread harassment and discrimination continue to be throughout Capitol Hill," reads the letter.
The letter was spearheaded by Democratic Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, and Patty Murray. All female senators — five Republicans and 17 Democrats — signed it.
"No longer can we allow the perpetrators of these crimes to hide behind a 23-year-old law. It’s time to rewrite the Congressional Accountability Act and update the process through which survivors seek justice," it continued.
The House passed legislation to overhaul the Congressional Accountability Act, which was implemented in 1995, last month. Among other things, the bill overhauls the secretive Office of Congressional Compliance, which has for years facilitated taxpayer-funded settlements for allegations against members of Congress and their offices, including sexual harassment. It would also require members to reimburse taxpayers for settlements they made for sexual harassment and other complaints. And it does away with the OOC requirement that victims of sexual harassment go through mandatory mediation and a 30-day "cooling-off period" to decide if the allegation should be pursued legally or administratively.
The Senate was expected to take up the House bill as part of a massive spending bill last week, but dropped those plans. It's unclear when senators will vote on the package.
The group of female senators praised the House legislation in their letter Wednesday, calling the current system for handling sexual harassment on Capitol Hill "antiquated."
Sen. Chuck Grassley, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, also wrote a letter to McConnell earlier this month demanding for the bill to be brought to the Senate floor.
Schumer said on Wednesday that he supports legislative change. "We strongly agree that the Senate should quickly take up legislation to combat sexual harassment on Capitol Hill," he said in a statement.
David Popp, a spokesperson for McConnell, noted that a bipartisan group is working on legislation. "I don't yet have a prediction on when that will be completed," he said in a statement.
"Sen. McConnell supports members being personally, financially liable for sexual misconduct in which they have engaged," added Popp.
The full text of the letter is as follows:
Dear Leader McConnell and Senator Schumer:
We write to express our deep disappointment that the Senate has failed to enact meaningful reforms to the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995. We urge you to bring before the full Senate legislation that would update and strengthen the procedures available to survivors of sexual harassment and discrimination in congressional workplaces.
Everyone deserves to work in an environment free from harassment and discrimination. In November, with your leadership, the Senate took an important first step in the effort to end harassment and discrimination in congressional workplaces with the passage of S. Res. 330, which requires anti-harassment and discrimination training for all Senators and staff at least once each Congress. While this training requirement was a significant step to address workplace harassment, there was broad, bipartisan agreement at that time that more had to be done to support survivors.
Although the Congressional Accountability Act (CAA) implemented meaningful reforms when it became law in 1995, it continues to require survivors to endure an antiquated dispute resolution process, including a month-long counseling session, forced mediation and a 30-day “cooling off” period before a victim can make a decision whether to pursue justice in a courtroom or continue with administrative procedures. The time has come to rewrite the CAA to provide a more equitable process that supports survivors of harassment and discrimination.
The Senate’s inaction stands in stark contrast to the bipartisan effort in the House of Representatives that led to the passage of bipartisan CAA reform legislation in February. The House bill includes a number of important provisions, such as eliminating waiting periods before a victim can take their case to court, increased transparency for awards and settlements, and a requirement that Members of the Senate and House pay for an award or settlement stemming from a case of sexual harassment or discrimination that they personally commit.
When the Senate considers CAA reform legislation, we will also have the ability to address an inequity that now exists between House and Senate staff. The House of Representatives passed H. Res. 724 that provides House staff who are survivors of harassment or discrimination access to free legal representation. Senate staff who face similar harassment or discrimination must pay personally for legal representation or represent themselves through complicated legal proceedings. Therefore, the Senate must act quickly to provide Senate staff with the same resources as their House colleagues.
Inaction is unacceptable when a survey shows that four out of 10 women congressional staffers believe that sexual harassment is a problem on Capitol Hill and one out of six women in the same survey responded that they have been the survivors of sexual harassment. Survivors who have bravely come forward to share their stories have brought to light just how widespread harassment and discrimination continue to be throughout Capitol Hill. No longer can we allow the perpetrators of these crimes to hide behind a 23-year-old law. It’s time to rewrite the Congressional Accountability Act and update the process through which survivors seek justice.