Opinion

Opinion: Women Played a Key Role in Harassment Bill

In the #MeToo era, some lawmakers may be scurrying for cover

Rep. Susan Brooks, R-Ind., describes legislation aimed at helping victims of harassment on the Hill as “some of the most important work” she’ll ever do in the House. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

When people talk about women running for office, we hear a lot about numbers. X-number of women are running. Women make up y-percent of Congress or elected officials. When x and y are equal, then we’ll finally see a difference in our government.

But beyond the numbers, if you really want to see the difference it makes to have women from both parties at the table when legislation is drafted, look no further than the bill introduced last week to finally begin to change the way sexual harassment has been dealt with in Capitol Hill offices since the Congressional Accountability Act passed in 1995.

Among the women who played a key role in crafting the legislation were Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, and Barbara Comstock, a Virginia Republican, who had both been Capitol Hill staffers themselves before coming to Congress as members, along with Rep. Susan W. Brooks, the chair of the House Ethics Committee, who is a former U.S. Attorney and defense lawyer in private practice.

While it may be hard for even well-meaning men to understand how pervasive sexual harassment has been on Capitol Hill and just how damaging it can be for the career prospects of a young staffer without the power to do anything about it, nobody needed to convince these congresswomen that harassment is real and destructive. They just needed to be in a position of power to begin to fix it. Finally they are.

I spoke with Brooks last week just before the legislation was introduced. “I’m proud to be a part of it,” the Indiana Republican said. “It’s some of the most important work I’ll ever do in the House.”

Watch: Former Congresswomen Reflect on Sexual Harassment Issues

Legislation with some bite

The bill that was introduced last week is serious stuff. It adds key protections for staffers at the very beginning of the complaint process in the form of an employee advocate, who will work with the staffer from start to finish. Without the money to pay a lawyer, staffers have said they felt powerless and outgunned across the table from members and government attorneys. Roll Call even reported recently on a staffer who brought his mother to his mediation just to have someone with him. This bill changes that.

And unlike the unaccountable and secretive settlements that were paid with taxpayer dollars before, including for Reps. John Conyers Jr. and Blake Farenthold, this bill makes members personally responsible for paying any financial settlements with a staffer. If the member has not paid within 90 days, the money will start to come out of their 401(k)-style Thrift Savings Plan. And even if they resign or leave Congress, they’re still responsible for paying the debt.

The legislation also tackles head-on the secrecy embedded in the current culture of Capitol Hill by requiring a regular six-month public disclosure of any awards or settlements. The disclosures will include the name of the office, the amount of the award, the violations, when the claim was issued and whether the member has personally repaid the Treasury for the settlement. If money isn’t enough of a disincentive for bad behavior, shame in the form of public disclosure should be.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, the legislation requires an automatic referral to the Ethics Committee when there is a final award or settlement reached against a member, a provision that Brooks said she felt was essential. Under the previous system, when a settlement was reached, literally no one could speak of it again.

Leadership could not observe a member’s pattern of behavior. The Ethics Committee could never discipline him. As far as anyone knew, the events in the settlement never happened. With this legislation, including many of the House rules changes that will kick in immediately when the House passes it, those days are over.

Brooks told me that she has been assured by the speaker’s office and the minority leader’s office that if the committee’s workload changes because of this, they’ll get the resources they need.

“Our duty is to uphold the integrity of the House and the institution, and we want to make sure that our members abide by the code of conduct so that the institution is viewed as abiding by not only the laws of our country but the highest levels of conduct,” she said.

Taking it seriously

Brooks also said she feels the responsibility of leading the Ethics Committee, as a woman, during the #MeToo moment in history.

“I believe this is incredible important work and the Ethics Committee is taking these matters very seriously,” she said. “We have spent a lot of time discussing these matters and what’s happening relative to the cultural revolution that’s happening and what our role is.”

We learned over the weekend that one of the first roles of Brooks’ Ethics Committee this year will be investigating one of their own. Speaker Paul D. Ryan announced Sunday that he had removed Republican Rep. Patrick Meehan of Pennsylvania from the Ethics Committee because the speaker had learned Meehan had reached his own confidential settlement of sexual harassment claims from a woman in his own office, even while he was a member of the Committee.

The congressman has denied the allegations against him, but he is finding that one of the many new punishments members of Congress may face has nothing to do with the House rules or the Ethics Committee or the legislation that’s pending in Congress.

Instead, it’s the response of voters when they find out about once-secret agreements that are becoming harder and harder for members to keep hidden from view.

Roll Call’s Nathan Gonzales has changed the rating of Meehan’s suburban Philadelphia district from Likely Republican to Leans Republican, reflecting the reality that in the #MeToo era, harassment — and even allegations of harassment — may truly no longer be tolerated, neither on the Hill nor at the polls.

Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.

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