Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Congress Has to Deal With Its Own #MeToo Issues Post-Kavanaugh

October 11, 2018 Katherine Scott
  • Violence Against Women Act expires in two months
  • Anti-harassment policy negotiations still at staff level

Now that Brett Kavanaugh is on the Supreme Court, senators have some unfinished #MeToo business.

They have to get together on a policy for dealing with harassment of their own staffs and must update the soon-to-expire federal law that helps states combat stalking, date rape, sexual assault, and other violence against women.

Those issues have been pushed aside until after the election, with the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) reauthorized only through Dec. 7 and negotiators describing themselves as nowhere close to agreeing on how to punish mistreatment of Capitol Hill employees.

The workplace harassment standard “is something I know will get done before the end of the year,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Oct. 7 on “Face the Nation.”

Before the House left town for its campaign-season recess, House-Senate talks over a single standard for the treatment of staff and consequences for violations hadn’t moved past the informal staff level, according to House Administration Committee Chairman Gregg Harper (R-Miss.).

“We’re having a hard time really coming to grips with the fact that the House and Senate are different institutions,” said Senate Rules and Administration Chairman Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). “I still think we’ll get this done.”

Until there’s a new policy, both chambers require those who complain of on-the-job harassment to undergo mandatory counseling and mediation. Staffers are barred from making a formal complaint until at least three months have passed.

Forced Departures

Congress dealt with sexual misconduct on a case-by-case basis during the current session. At the urging of their peers, former Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) resigned as of Jan. 2, 2018, John Conyers (D-Mich.) quit the House on Dec. 5, 2017, and Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) left the House as of Dec, 8, 2017. All three were replaced by women.

Ex-Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas), who resigned on April 6, 2018, promised to repay the government for a $84,000 harassment settlement. He reversed himself about paying and is now back on Capitol Hill as a lobbyist.

In September, the House Financial Services Committee invited a Federal Housing Finance Agency employee, Simone Grimes, to testify about her allegations of harassment by agency director Mel Watts. That same month, the Senate cleared a bill (H.R. 2259) that would expand provisions to prevent and respond to sexual assault of Peace Corps volunteers.

Congressional committees also held hearings this year to focus attention on the abuse of young athletes.

Stalled Legislation

Consequences for malfeasance against Capitol Hill employees have been tough for lawmakers to figure out.

In May, the Senate passed its preferred approach (S. 2952), a bill that would set up an accelerated claims process and mandate more disclosure of harassment-related claims and settlements.

Senators voted to make themselves and their peers responsible for paying out of pocket for sexual harassment settlements only — not settlements involving other forms of discrimination.

Blunt has said that the House and Senate could write separate policies, an option rejected by Democrats and his House counterpart.

“I really believe we should do one bill,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), the ranking minority-party member of the Senate Rules Committee.

“We’d just like to get it done and wrapped up.” added Harper, who’s retiring from Congress in January, as is his committee’s ranking Democrat, Bob Brady(Pa.).

House, Senate May Go Separate Ways on Anti-Harassment Policy
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As for VAWA, which made restitution mandatory for those convicted of violent crimes against women, it was temporarily extended as part of legislation to avoid a government shutdown (Public Law 115-245).

The Senate Judiciary Committee held one hearing, in March, and since then its members have described a long-term reauthorization as a work in progress. The committee hasn’t held a markup and hasn’t released draft legislation.

“I think now we’re looking at an extension,” Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) said Wednesday. “But you should not take anything I tell you on that as final because it’s being negotiated at the leader’s level and the speaker’s level.”

House Proposals

In the House, where about 80 percent of the seats are held by men, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) has introduced a short-term bill (H.R. 6796) that would reauthorize VAWA through March 31, 2019.

House Democrats, led by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) have introduced a bill (H.R. 6545) that would reauthorize VAWA through fiscal 2023 and require state and local governments to ensure that accused abusers relinquish their guns.

That proposal would require the Federal Bureau of Prisons to classify transgender prisoners as “vulnerable” and to consider whether to assign transgender prisoners to male or female facilities on a case-by-case basis.

What Came Before

Stefanik’s proposed six-month extension may be the most that can be done this year, given how little time there will be in the after-election session, as well as Congress’s long history of awkwardness in dealing with pretty much everything involving women.

In the 1970s, for instance, the first woman to serve on the House Armed Services Committee, Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.), wasn’t given a seat of her own on the dais and had to literally sit cheek-to-cheek on the same chair as Ron Dellums (D-Calif.), as Schroeder’s recalled in her official House biography.

It wasn’t until 2011 that a women’s rest room was installed close to where representatives vote.

Though the Senate — which still is 77 percent male — wasn’t as slow as the House to provide chairs and bathrooms, writing a law that applies expressly to Congress should be expected to be easy, even in the year of the #MeToo movement, former Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said in a telephone interview.

“There are a lot of men still serving who are nervous about rewriting the harassment rules,” she said. “There’s still a huge amount of hostility toward women.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Katherine Scott in Washington at kscott@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Katherine Rizzo at krizzo@bgov.com; John R. Kirkland at jkirkland@bgov.com

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