We are in a moment of reckoning. For too long, in too many workplaces, women and men have been propositioned, grabbed, licked, kissed and groped. They have seen their careers crumble into dust through no fault of their own. They have been driven out of the industries—journalism, entertainment and, yes, politics—in which they worked for years to excel.
And now, at last, the reckoning has come to Congress. Michigan Rep. John Conyers and Minnesota Sen. Al Franken did the right thing by stepping down, especially after many of my Democratic colleagues spoke out against their continued tenure and rightly stated such behavior makes these men unfit to serve. While we will miss their legislative contributions, their behavior was inexcusable. And, in the same vein, I continue to call upon Nevada Democrat Rep. Ruben Kihuen and Texas Republican Rep. Blake Farenthold to resign as well.
After sharing my own experience in October, as part of the #MeTooCongress movement, I have heard from a steady stream of survivors who have been personally, professionally and financially destroyed by the current opaque and abusive complaint process. Meanwhile, taxpayers foot the bill for settlements, and the harasser goes on their way, free to damage more lives.
As I have noted many times, Congress as an institution is special, but we as elected representatives are not. Serving as a member of Congress is a privilege, not a right, and anyone who has abused their power in this manner deserves to lose it.
It’s that shared belief that has led 110 members, from both sides of the aisle, to cosponsor the ME TOO Congress Act. My bill will bring greater accountability to Congress by overhauling the onerous congressional reporting system to ensure that employee complaints are handled swiftly and equitably. For instance, instead of being forced into 90 days of silence, employees will be able to take their cases directly to federal court or file a complaint through the Office of Compliance (OOC), and have it adjudicated by a hearing officer if they so choose. The bill also requires that employees who file complaints are represented by counsel—something that is currently provided only to the member’s office—and that employees who file complaints are not forced into mediation, legal counseling or confidentiality agreements.
The ME TOO Congress Act will also increase transparency for cases that end in taxpayer-funded settlements. For those cases, the name of the employing office and the amount of the award or settlement will be published on OOC’s public website. Members who have a substantiated finding against them will be personally responsible for reimbursing the U.S. Treasury for settlement costs. To get an accurate assessment of the overall problem, Congress will also have to conduct a climate survey to evaluate the effectiveness of the reforms put in place.
There is far more to be done, however, when it comes to member accountability. When a CEO of a company engages in inappropriate behavior, the board of directors often meets immediately to determine whether the CEO can stay on, or instead face other financial punishments, such as a loss of stock options or bonuses. Victims in these cases, and the public, aren't told that everyone has to wait until the next shareholder vote, whenever that may be. In the organizations with the best practices, problems are quickly identified and solved. It should be no different in Congress, which is why we need an independent investigative body, or a type of "board of directors," to handle reports of these incidents to ensure timely and impartial oversight. These decisions must reflect what is best for the institution and for the victims, not for individual members of Congress.
Now that this moment of reckoning is upon us, it is clear that we in Congress cannot fail in our duty to do what is right. The American people do not want us to hide behind opaque decisions by obscure committees. They do not want to pay for our inability to keep our hands to ourselves. They want accountability and transparency, and they want it now.
Every individual is entitled to a workplace safe from harassment and abuse. Every American taxpayer needs to know their hard-earned money will not be squandered to clean up the messes of members of Congress who have betrayed the public trust.
The #MeToo movement is about bringing to light a very dark corner of our society, and I’m heartened by the outpouring of support from my colleagues on both sides of the aisle. I know Congress can be better than this, the American people expect Congress to be better than this and I believe we can rise to meet their challenge.
California Democrat Rep. Jackie Speier, who serves on the House Intelligence Committee and is ranking member on the House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee, has been fighting sexual harassment and violence in the workplace throughout her political career.
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