Time Running Out on Hill Sexual Harassment Reforms, Former Staffers Warn

One year after #metoo movement spurred Congress to action, House and Senate bills could expire

Senate staffers and visitors pass by the plexiglass-enclosed displays of the various U.S. Capitol building design models in the Hart Senate Office Building on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Congress will forfeit a passed bill from each chamber aimed at curbing sexual harassment unless lawmakers can come together before year’s end.

“Time is running out,” said Kristin Nicholson, co-founder of Congress Too, a group of former Hill staffers that has sought to reform the way Congress approaches staff training and response to sexual harassment allegations. “We really want all that progress not to go to waste, and for that to happen, we need something to be passed this year.”

Nicholson and Congress Too co-founder Travis Moore, along with eight former Hill staffers who have publicly detailed experiences with alleged harassment during their time working in and around Congressional offices, outlined their concerns in a letter to House and Senate leaders Tuesday. 

The letter was sent to coincide with the anniversary of another missive from the same group signed by 1,500 former staff members during the height of the #metoo movement. Since then, a handful of members lost their seats because of sexual misconduct allegations and record numbers of women waged — and won — campaigns for office. But Congress has so far failed to enact meaningful changes for its own staff. Any legislation not passed by the time Congress adjourns in December will be considered dead. 

“Failure to pass a final bill at this point would be deeply disappointing to the hundreds of former staffers who have advocated for reform, and deeply unfair to the thousands of current staffers who continue to be denied some of the most basic resources and protections against workplace harassment and discrimination,” the letter stated. “It is our fervent hope that the 116th Congress will begin with a fairer, safer, more supportive system in place for all those who serve there.”

Lawmakers have reported progress on a final bill, but negotiations have snagged over disagreements in how expansive the bill should be. Those include a narrower definition of sexual harassment in the Senate version than the one passed by the House. The Senate version would also provide some restrictions on a provision in the House bill making members liable for sexual harassment settlements. 

“If we miss this moment, we will have to start over, and there’s no telling what will happen in the next Congress,” Moore said. “It has been a year and we have had many, many women come forward with stories of harassment, abuse and accounts of how dysfunctional the process is. I think we owe it to them, and to the many hundreds of new staff that will be starting in the new Congress to just get this done.”

The Congress Too letter calls for voluntary counseling and mediation for staff members, independent investigation of harassment and discrimination claims, public notice of taxpayer-funded settlements and a requirement that members of Congress personally reimburse the Treasury for the settlement of any claim of harassment or discrimination they commit.

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