When reports emerged in October about producer Harvey Weinstein’s history of sexual misconduct against women working in Hollywood, a movement originated by activist Tarana Burke to give voice to sexual abuse survivors gained momentum on social media as women began sharing their experiences of abuse from men in authoritative positions. As the Center for American Progress reports, sexual harassment is rampant across industries, including public administration—an industry that accounted for 6.48% of sexual harassment charges filed from 2005 to 2015. A new bipartisan bill takes a step toward reducing this statistic by focusing on lawmakers who perpetrate sexual misconduct and their victims.
One of the biggest challenges in addressing sexual harassment by members of Congress has been gathering information about past claims, which is hindered by the complaint process, confidential counseling and mediation requirements, settlement agreements, and retaliation. A turning point came after several Democratic and Republican lawmakers resigned following sexual abuse claims, resulting in the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 Reform Act (CAA Reform Act). This bipartisan bill, proposed by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) and introduced by Rep. Gregg Harper (R-Miss.), who wrote the legislation with Rep. Robert Brady (D-Pa.), expands the rights and resources available to victims when filing complaints and bars lawmakers from settling claims with victims using taxpayer funds.
The CAA Reform Act amends the 1995 legislation by revising procedures for investigating and resolving employees’ claims of violations that include sexual harassment. In addition to making the process for filing complaints less onerous for employees, accused lawmakers will now be required to reimburse the United States Treasury within ninety days of their settlements to avoid having their wages garnished. The House of Representatives approved the bill in February, but progress on the bill reached a standstill in the Senate.
The foundation of this bill was laid as far back as the 1980s, when the United States Supreme Court determined that workplace sexual harassment violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In its 1986 decision for Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, the Supreme Court noted that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued guidelines specifyingthat sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination. The Supreme Court’s decision, despite setting a clear standard, did not lead to reduced incidents of sexual harassment across sectors, demonstrating that existing legislation and case law has been insufficient to curb sexual harassment, especially when individuals in higher federal government positions have managed to evade repercussions of committing sexual harassment.
Not only does the demand for this bill align with existing law in the United States, but it also falls within provisions of international human rights instruments that demand fair treatment of women. The United States has signed, but not ratified, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, which in part requires parties to adopt legislative and non-legislative measures in the political field to prohibit sex discrimination, modify laws and practices that constitute sex discrimination, and provide women with legal protection of their rights equal to men. Similarly, the United States has only signed, without ratifying, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, which guarantees the right to employment without discrimination on the basis of classes including sex, and the American Convention on Human Rights, which protects the right to physical and mental integrity and prohibits cruel and degrading treatment.
Because the United States has not yet ratified these treaties, it may be argued that the United States has not effectively agreed to be bound by these instruments. The United States has, however, signed and ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which provides broad protections by prohibiting any act, including sex discrimination, that constitutes disrespect for a person’s inherent dignity, forced or compulsory labor, or degrading and cruel treatment.
The CAA Reform Act should be passed to create significant change with regard to sexual harassment in politics. The requirements imposed in the bill create greater accountability than other methods that have either been unenforced or unsuccessful in preventing sexual harassment. At a time when women and men who have endured sexual misconduct have grown emboldened to vocalize their experiences, female senators are making bipartisan efforts to push Senate leadership to take concrete steps to pass sexual harassment legislation. The federal government can no longer turn a deaf ear to sexual harassment as the voices of survivors and their supporters grow louder.