A bipartisan letter signed by every woman in the Senate and circulated Wednesday slammed the body’s “inaction” on moving sexual assault legislation forward despite successful efforts in the House of Representatives.
Led by Democratic Senators Amy Klobuchar (MN), Kirsten Gillibrand (NY), and Patty Murray (WA), the letter was sent to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and signed by all 22 Republican and Democratic women in the Senate.
“We write to express our deep disappointment that the Senate has failed to enact meaningful reforms to the Congressional Accountability Act [CAA] of 1995,” reads the letter. “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.”
The document goes on to slam current inefficient procedures for handling harassment complaints, which largely center responsibility on survivors.
“It [the current system] 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 letter admonishes.
Last month, the House passed its own version of a bill reforming the CAA and overhauling how Congress handles sexual harassment complaints. But the effort has stalled in the Senate as lawmakers have disputed provisions holding members personally liable for paying harassment settlements and making the information open to the public.
At present, lawmakers can use taxpayer money to fund settlements and the process is largely veiled in secrecy, part of the framework established by 1995 statute laying out how harassment allegations are handled on Capitol Hill.
Earlier this month, leaders in both the House and Senate removed any language addressing the issue in the 2,232-page omnibus spending bill. Gillibrand, who has spearheaded much of the legislation aimed at curbing sexual assault and harassment in the Senate, slammed the decision and criticized leadership in both parties.
“It begs the question: Who are they trying to protect? I can’t think of any legitimate reason to remove this language other than to protect members of Congress over taxpayers and congressional employees,” she said at the time.
In the House, efforts to reform how Congress handles sexual harassment have received support from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. That consensus is an indicator that the rise of the #MeToo movement and a number of scandals implicating multiple Republican and Democratic male lawmakers have not gone unnoticed. Such unanimity has been scarce in the Senate, much to the chagrin of the chamber’s women.
House employees receive “access to free legal representation” now, something that creates “an inequity” for Senate staffers, they argued in the letter circulated Wednesday.
“Senate staff who face similar harassment or discrimination [to those in the House] must pay personally for legal representation or represent themselves through complicated legal proceedings,” the letter reads.
That could have severe ramifications. Harassment is rampant on Capitol Hill, the document emphasizes, and without an effective system in place, victims will suffer the consequences.
“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,” the letter argues.
Whether or not the appeal will inspire Senate leadership to take up the issue is unclear. Schumer said last week that, “We are going to get something done,” but failed to indicate when that might be. McConnell also gave no time frame but offered that a bipartisan group is working on the bill.