California Congresswoman Jackie Speier, one of the leading voices advocating for sexual harassment victims in Congress, is not happy that Congress just punted on what was perhaps its best chance of overhauling how harassment complaints are reported and adjudicated in Congress.
She’s pointing the finger squarely at one person: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
According to Speier, who represents a portion of San Francisco and Silicon Valley, the Kentucky Republican is responsible for the fact that the Senate has still not acted to change Congress’ handling of sexual harassment. The House passed a bill to overhaul the legislative branch’s arcane system for handling workplace complaints in February, but it was left out of a massive spending bill that lawmakers passed Thursday. That so-called “omnibus” is widely believed to be the last major piece of legislation Congress will approve this year, which made it an attractive vehicle for a whole range of legislative proposals that are still awaiting a vote.
“Sen. McConnell’s failure to do what House Leadership on both sides of the aisle accomplished, with the help of Members ranging from an Alabama conservative to Bay Area liberal, is a breach of the public’s trust,” Speier said in a statement provided to The Sacramento Bee. “But we’re not going to be thwarted in our efforts to create a safe workplace environment for Capitol Hill employees. Sen. McConnell should be ashamed, and I think it’s time for the women of Kentucky to have a #TimesUp moment at the polls.”
Speier suggested McConnell specifically wants to “weaken” a provision in the House’s sexual harassment proposal that would require members of Congress to pay for settlements of harassment complaints and other types of workplace discrimination out of their own pocket. But she said that “The one thing the American public made overwhelmingly clear was that Members must be held personally and financially responsible for their misdeeds.”
Three congressional aides with knowledge of the spending negotiations from both chambers also said that McConnell resisted adding the sexual harassment provision to the bill over concerns about the payout language in the House proposal.
A spokesman for the Majority Leader denied that McConnell is against barring lawmakers from using taxpayer funds for sexual harassment payouts, per se. “Sen. McConnell supports members being personally, financially liable for sexual misconduct in which they have engaged,” Don Stewart told The Bee. He did not, however, comment on payouts for other types of discrimination – including on the basis of age, race, religion or disability – that are also covered by the House legislation.
Currently, lawmakers can tap public funds – either through a Treasury fund or their own personal member account – to pay for these types of settlements or other damages. Revelations of those type of taxpayer-funded payments forced the resignation of veteran Democratic Congressman John Conyers and conservative Texas Congressman Blake Farenthold late last year.
Senators on both sides of the aisle insist they will be able to reach agreement on a new sexual harassment law this year. McConnell’s office noted that a bipartisan group of senators are continuing to negotiate legislation to respond to an issue that has swept up powerful men – and women – on Capitol Hill and around the country as part of the viral #MeToo movement.
In addition to Conyers and Farenthold, Democratic Sen. Al Franken was forced out of office late last year. Several members of the House of both parties have either resigned or are not planning to run again after facing accusations of harassment from former staff.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer also expressed hope on Thursday that the Senate will reach agreement on new sexual harassment policies soon. “We had disagreements on specific provisions,” Schumer told reporters. But “it’s a very important issue, and we are going to get something done in the next little while.”
Speier argued the path forward for the Senate is simple: “The bipartisan (House bill), as written, is what should be passed.”