The tremors set off by the allegations against movie producer Harvey Weinstein nearly a month ago continue to reverberate across the country. Every day, it seems, women and men come forward to tell new stories of mistreatment, harassment or abuse at the hands of powerful men in Hollywood, in tech, in politics and media.
Some of the events being described are recent; others are decades old. Some involve serious or criminal behavior; others involve lower-level offenses that are nevertheless unacceptable in a workplace setting. The allegations are surfacing now because the tellers believe that by adding their experience to the ever-growing collection, it will bring sexual misconduct into the open and serve as a warning to people in power that they can be held accountable for their behavior.
In the months ahead, Congress — among others — will have to grapple with the new focus on sexual misconduct in the workplace, and think hard about how it should be treated under law. But can Americans trust their political leaders now to help navigate through these complicated issues given how badly they seem to have handled the issue on their own local turf?
Consider the Congressional Accountability Act. This law was passed 22 years ago to extend to Legislative branch employees some of the workplace protections that other workers enjoy, such as those that give them the right to lodge a complaint about age, gender and other types of discrimination and to report sexual harassment. But the law forces people who have been sexually harassed — usually women — to jump through months of unnecessary hoops before they can make a formal complaint.
Here’s an example: Say a congressional staffer wants to report that her supervisor has repeatedly made lewd comments and touched her inappropriately. She better have a lot of patience. Before she can file an administrative complaint or a lawsuit, the Congressional Accountability Act requires a 30-day “counseling period” during which she will meet with the Office of Compliance to find out about her rights and the steps required to pursue a complaint. This 30-day period is followed by another one of the same length, this time for mandatory ”mediation” (optional for other federal employees) during which the two parties, or their representatives, will try to hash out a compromise with the help of a mediator.
If she is not demoralized enough at this point to settle or to withdraw her complaint, the staffer then must wait yet another 30 days, the point of which is unexplained in the law, before filing an administrative complaint with the Congressional Office of Compliance or a lawsuit in Federal District Court. To recap, she will have had to wait three months — at least — from the time of the incident before being allowed to lodge a formal complaint, all the while continuing to work in the same potentially hostile workplace, possibly alongside the person who harassed her in the first place. Only then can she move on to the second stage of the process, which may be just as extended as the first.
Who could blame someone for throwing up their hands in frustration and finding another job? And that’s part of the problem. Processes such as this one, which are supposedly designed to protect people but seem more likely to drive them to despair, are at least partially to blame for allowing the culture of harassment to persist.
Instead of keeping its anachronistic, victim-blaming sex harassment rules in place, Congress could set an example by owning up to its culpability and dumping this onerous reporting process. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough), who recently revealed that she had experienced sexual harassment as a young congressional staffer, plans to unveil legislation this week to speed up and change how harassment complaints are dealt with in the Capitol by making counseling and mediation optional, giving the Office of Compliance more authority to investigate complaints and requiring more public disclosure about harassment settlements. She will also introduce a bill making annual sexual harassment training mandatory for members of Congress and their staff, and requiring an anonymous survey of employees every two years to get an accurate picture of harassment on Capitol Hill.
The revelation that politics is still very much a boys club is dismaying, but there may be a silver lining if it forces a reckoning in the halls of power. Let’s hope lawmakers use this moment to set an example by fighting sexual harassment, not suppressing the people who want to report it.