Congress: Stop Protecting Sexual Harassers
Congress has a rich history of exempting itself from rules it imposes on everyone else. Insider trading? Doesn't apply. Whistleblower protections? Not in Congress! Workplace safety rights? Less is more. The Freedom of Information Act? Surely you jest.
The most egregious example of this "Do as we say, not as we do" approach may concern sexual harassment. This week, as the fallout from the Harvey Weinstein scandal continues, the House Administration Committee announced that it would review the body's embarrassingly backward harassment policies. It's about time.
The 1995 Congressional Accountability Act applied most labor and civil rights laws to Congress. But instead of subjecting itself to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces those laws, Congress created a weaker oversight body, the Office of Compliance -- and exempted itself from basic safeguards against violations that are all too common.
As a result, employees of federal agencies -- but not members of Congress -- are required to take training on sexual harassment. Agencies -- but not Congress -- must post information about where to report workplace violations. And while most federal workers find it relatively easy to file a complaint, congressional staff members face a convoluted process designed to protect offenders.
Legislative employees who wish to report sexual harassment must "request counseling" from the Office of Compliance, even though its board of directors is appointed by members of Congress, an inherent conflict of interest. After a 30-day counseling period, employees must file "a request for mediation," which is led by an outside official. Only after this 30-day mediation process may employees request an administrative hearing or file suit.
Although mediation can be a useful process, it can also deepen the pain and subject accusers to pressure from the accused, who can use mediation -- which is confidential -- to try to talk them out of pursuing their case. If a victim goes public before the conclusion of the counseling and mediation process, he or she is subject to sanctions.
This system was unenlightened, to put it mildly, when it was instituted in 1995. But in 2017, and in view of the widely reported experience of Hill staff members, it should be seen for what it is: an enabling mechanism. Federal employees who work on Capitol Hill should have no fewer protections than other federal employees.
House Speaker Paul Ryan has welcomed the administration committee's review. But the public should demand swift action and accountability. Mandating training would be a good start, as one representative (and former staff member) has proposed. Even better would be scrapping its separate and unequal adjudicatory process altogether. Congress should abide by the same laws and standards it places upon federal agencies, private businesses and the general public.
--Francis Barry; Michael Newman
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