Last week, the House of Representatives passed two measures that changed the former sexual harassment policy on Capitol Hill. One of the bills bans sexual relations between members of the House and their staffers while the other streamlines the complaint process and eliminates the “cooling off” period during which complainants have to wait months for formal legal proceedings and undergo mandatory counseling. Both of these bipartisan bills are steps in the right direction; however, they are long overdue and will not change the workplace culture on Capitol Hill. Legislators did not take into consideration the current gender imbalance that exists within the House and the Senate and did not empower survivors by providing the resources needed to pursue formal and legal avenues.
In the 115th Congress, only 19 percent of lawmakers are women, making the overwhelming majority of members of Congress men. Members, in turn, are in charge of their staffers and maintain offices in D.C. in addition to local offices in their districts. Staffers aid congressional committees and interact with several members of the House. The measure that bans memberstaffer relations is well-intentioned in that it recognizes the power imbalance between members and their staffers but does little to change that imbalance. Members of Congress still have their staffers’ jobs at their discretion, which gives them the power to coerce staffers into relations whether these relationships are banned or not. The fact that these relations were still acceptable up until a week ago shows that the legislation is far behind society’s standards and that the congressional workplace lacks basic measures to prevent employee harassment. Ideally, staffing would be completed or mediated by a third party agency, giving congress members less control over their employees’ jobs. This legislation is nothing more than a rubber stamp; as long as members have such considerable power over staffers, imbalanced and coerced relations will still occur. Congress is expected to regulate itself in procedural issues and rarely acts against members’ self-interest, perpetuating a culture in which members are emboldened to do whatever they please.
The new legislature still follows the same logic as the old policy. The bill revokes the age-old policy of requiring complainants to attend mandatory counseling and participate in mediation with the accused. However, the bill still makes the accuser/survivor rely heavily on the Office of Compliance (OOC), a review board within Congress. The OOC investigates the incident(s) and can rule in one of three ways: “reasonable cause for claim no reasonable cause for claim and no findings of reasonable cause can be made before any hearing on the merits can be held.” These rulings could possibly deter someone from heading to federal court even though the OOC is not a judicial agency. While the OOC is supposed to act as a non-biased agent, there are many factors that could affect an investigation run by a non-judicial agency. The legislation also mandates that the OOC publish bi-annually any settlements or monetary awards made by members of Congress. Formerly, the funds used in settlements were from taxpayers. Although the use of these funds is being abolished, Congress members still have the opportunity to use tax-based funds in settlements, as long as the funds are repaid within 90 days. This gives members the wrong idea that they can rely on taxpayer funds as a back-up plan and the delay in publication of these settlements gives the public less knowledge without giving survivors the option to not disclose the amount that they received.
Interestingly, this legislation arrives on the heels of President Drumpf complaining about a lack of “due process” after two of his aides resigned over sexual assault allegations. This political climate demands stricter legislation regulating Capitol Hill and the White House as well. In a White House where the rules are regularly skirted in favor of protecting self-interest, the government must show that it can rise above such temptations. Capitol Hill should also recognize how its male dominated perpetuates a culture of sexual harassment. The government should not only seek to protect staffers; it should also encourage women to rise up through the ranks by changing its ranking member policy. Ranking members help set the agenda in their committee and are respected members due to their seniority. Most older Congressmen are men because only a few women were elected before the last few decades. Women should also be encouraged to be Congress members themselves. Congress needs to take this moment to reflect on the power that it possesses as well as the culture that it perpetuates.