Just three months after a wave of sexual misconduct allegations slammed into Washington, Congress actually did something about it.
On Tuesday, the House voted to change decades-old procedures for how staffers report sexual harassment and assault accusations, procedures that largely let lawmakers get away with leveraging their power for sex, unless an accuser chose to speak publicly — or unless their accusation landed at the precise moment where society seems willing to take it seriously.
And it seems Congress is taking it seriously.
At least eight lawmakers in the House and Senate lost their jobs or will not run for reelection after sexual misconduct or harassment allegations in the past few months.
As more victims have felt empowered to speak up, these lawmakers have been accused of everything from groping a soldier while on a USO tour (resigned Democratic Minnesota senator Al Franken) to writing love notes to a staffer (retiring Rep. Patrick Meehan, R-Pa.) to offering to pay a staffer $5 million to bear his child (resigned GOP Arizona congressman Trent Franks) to decades of unwanted touching and sexual advances (resigned Michigan Democratic congressman John Conyers Jr.).
The wave of sexual harassment hit Washington so hard late last year that at one point, three congressmen lost their jobs in a week. Historians said the last time something like that happened, it was over slavery.
In a November hearing, lawmakers stressed that we may have only scratched the surface of Congress's sexual harassment problems. Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) said that his female chief of staff “has spent most of her career on Capitol Hill, said she does not know a single woman in her age group who has not experienced inappropriate conduct in the workplace.”
Clearly, the old rules weren't working.
The bill to change them still has to go through the Senate and be signed by the president. But four big changes take effect immediately in the House:
- Congress members are prohibited from having sexual relations with their staffers.
- A new office will be set up to provide House staffers with legal counsel and guidance as they navigate accusing powerful people of sexual harassment.
- Each House member has to adopt internal office policies prohibiting harassment and discrimination.
- House lawmakers must certify they are not using their budgets to settle workplace harassment claims (which has allowed some lawmakers to brush off payments to staffers alleging harassment as “severance pay").
If the bill passes the Senate and is signed by President Trump (always a wild card), here's what the new rules would look like, according to a briefing by staffers from Rep. Jackie Speier's (D-Calif.) office. The congresswoman's bill was wrapped into much of the changes:
- Lawmakers would be required to pay sexual harassment claims against them out of their own pockets, rather than with taxpayer money. This bill would even allow the government to take money out of the lawmaker's pension and Social Security if they resign or refuse to pay.
- Staffers who settle will no longer be required to sign nondisclosure agreements (unless they want to).
- Staffers will not be required to have mandatory legal counseling before they accuse their bosses, nor do they have to sit through mediation with their bosses. And they don't have to wait for a “cooling off period” to decide whether to accuse their lawmaker.
It's a remarkable turn of events for a Congress that, up until a few months ago, had never required its members to go through sexual harassment training. Ever.
Since we're talking about a Congress that is months overdue to pass a spending bill, it's clear that public pressure is what made all the difference.
Leadership on both sides made this legislation a priority, a reflection of how the lawmaker-titled rule book was as much of a political problem as a systemic one.
“Thanks to the Me Too movement, the American public has made it clear that they have had enough,” Speier said. “They expect Congress to lead, and for once we are.”
What system congressional staffers use to report sexual harassment may seem insular. But as the #MeToo movement has shown us, what Congress does on this front, the public watches. Franken's accuser says she was motivated to come forward by Speier's story of being forcibly kissed as an aide in Congress years ago.
“At that moment, I thought to myself, Al Franken did that exact same thing to me,” wrote Leeann Tweeden, words that would, along with seven other accusers, ultimately bring down a sitting U.S. senator.