In Letter, Survivors Call for Passage of Legislation that Reforms the Outdated and Traumatizing System for Addressing Harassment and Discrimination

September 20, 2018

WASHINGTON — Seven former congressional staffers today submitted a letter to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and Democratic leaders Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), calling for immediate action on legislation to reform the way in which Congress handles claims of harassment and discrimination in the legislative workforce.

Each of the signatories experienced some form of harassment or abuse while working for members of Congress and describes in the letter the kind of trauma and pain caused by the current failed system.  

“In every building, down every hallway, and behind every door in Congress are good, honest people — often young people — working long hours for little pay in hopes of making our country and the world fairer and more just,” said Anna Kain, former congressional staffer and co-author of the letter. “But for too many of us, the work was tainted by harassment and abuse and an unforgiving, flawed system that protects those in power rather than those who need protection most. We implore our elected representatives, on behalf of ourselves and so many others who are unable to come forward, to pass the strongest reforms possible to the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 before the end of this work period. The safety and well-being of all staffers depends on it. ” 

Despite significant progress in cultural understanding — especially in the last year — of the ways sexism and discrimination in the workplace can cause deep and lasting harm, Congress has not reformed its process for reporting and addressing misconduct in the legislative workforce since the Congressional Accountability Act was passed in 1995. The current system puts the onus on the victim, does little to address the unequal power dynamics between victims and perpetrators, and often re-traumatizes survivors. Additionally, employees who report harassment and abuse are often retaliated against and credibly fear that their current jobs and future careers will be threatened if they moved forward.

“This poignant letter written by former congressional staffers serves as a much needed reminder of the toll that harassment and discrimination take on women’s lives. It is also a call to action for every member of Congress and the public,” says Faiz Shakir, American Civil Liberties Union national political director. “We’re nearing the one-year mark since the #MeToo movement shook the nation’s consciousness and yet Congress has passed no new law in response. It can take action now by passing the strongest version of the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 Reform Act that truly supports survivors and advances real accountability and transparency, especially on the issue of member reimbursement.”

Although both the House and Senate have passed different versions of reform legislation (H.R. 4924 and S. 2952, respectively), passage of a final bill has been stymied, with members of Senate leadership opposing several provisions that would strengthen congressional accountability and transparency. The legislative workforce, and the people they serve, deserve better from Congress.

“Anna, Rebecca, Ally, Katherine, Winsome, Lauren, and Melanie have bravely shared their stories of sexual harassment and abuse on Capitol Hill, and Congress needs to act,” said Kristin Nicholson and Travis Moore, co-founders of Congress Too, which represents 1,500 former congressional staff dedicated to addressing sexual harassment in Congress. “As they and countless former colleagues have recounted publicly and privately, Congress has a sexual harassment problem. Members of our group have described a climate of fear and secrecy, a burdensome and confusing reporting process, and a system designed to protect congressional offices at the expense of victims. It’s time for members of the House and the Senate to finish the job and agree on the strongest possible package of reforms to address harassment and discrimination on Capitol Hill. ”

“Earlier this year, our nation’s lawmakers took important and long-overdue steps towards addressing sexual harassment in Congress by passing bipartisan legislation in both chambers,” said Emily Martin, Vice President for Education and Workplace Justice at the National Women’s Law Center. ‘So it’s all the more frustrating and disappointing that after several months, they haven’t been able to come together and pass a final bill that adopts the stronger protections against harassment and discrimination, and critical transparency and accountability measures, in the House bill. Time is running out; it’s already too late for Anna and her colleagues. As we approach the one-year anniversary of #MeToo going viral, we urge the Senate to adopt the stronger House measures so that Congress can finalize legislation that delivers the protections the legislative workforce needs and deserves.”

“The #MeToo movement has helped to give voice to countless individuals who have courageously stood up to recount stories of workplace misconduct, including physical and verbal abuse, discrimination and harassment, and retaliation when they have spoken out,” added Lisa Gilbert, Vice President for Legislative Affairs at Public Citizen. “Congress suffers from a unique culture of secrecy because a person’s livelihood and reputation can be directly tied to just one person, such as a member of Congress or senior staffer, either of whom may be the perpetrator. The six former congressional staffers who have come forward to tell their story should be recognized for their courage. The House and Senate have both passed reform bills, but it is evidently clear that the House-passed bill is significantly stronger. It is up to us as advocates to force those in power to pass the strongest possible bill.”

“While no survivor of sexual harassment or assault should be forced to share their story, this letter from former congressional staffers who are survivors of sexual harassment and assault serves as a stark reminder that Congress has not yet agreed on reforms to effectively protect those who work in the legislative branch” said Vanita Gupta, President and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “While both chambers have adopted legislation aimed at strengthening protections against sexual and other workplace harassment and discrimination, the provisions of the House bill are far stronger in holding lawmakers accountable, providing needed legal assistance to survivors, and making mediation totally voluntary. Those who craft our nation’s laws must act now to ensure a safe environment, free of harassment and discrimination, for those who work for the Congress. In addition to stronger legislation, as we have seen in recent days, it is essential that there is a change in attitude – when survivors come forward, they should be heard and believed, and not attacked and belittled.”

"In the year since the launch of the #MeToo movement, the nation has learned a lot about how sexual harassment conspires in the workplace to limit the opportunities, advancement, and, in some cases, livelihood of most often women.  As evidenced by the stories of these former staffers and my own experiences working on Capitol Hill, the Congressional workplace has not been exempt. Indeed, some of the worse harassment and workplace discrimination occurs in the Halls of Congress, where the vulnerable and powerful work and socialize side-by-side, human resources standards are less formalized, diversity and inclusion in hiring and pay for women and minorities is not prioritized, and careers are determined by the strength of relationships. Members know all of this, but, instead of leading the nation in the development of strong workplace protections, Congress is dragging its feet. We aren't surprised, but we are disappointed, especially in this national moment. Congress should surprise us, lead by example and move swiftly to pass strong Congressional Accountability Act reform," said Joi Chaney, Senior Policy Counsel, Equal Rights Advocates & Project Director, Equal Pay Today.

The letter is online here: https://www.aclu.org/letter/letter-congressional-leadership-former-staff-survived-harassment-and-assault

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