A recent bill was passed in the U.S. House of Representatives modifying the way that sexual harassment cases are handled on Capitol Hill. The proposed bill would change many of the procedures that are currently in place under the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995. Per the 1995 act, victims are required to attend counseling for months before they are able to file a formal complaint about their sexual harassment.
The new bill would change this mandatory meditation period, allowing victims to take action as soon as they have experienced an incident of harassment or assault. Additionally, current victims of sexual harassment or assault do not have easy access to the resources they may need to receive fair representation.(1) The new bill provides victims with legal representation once a complaint has been filed. Finally, the new bill holds the sexual harasser accountable by using his or her own funds to pay the settlement. This differs from the current act in which the accused can use taxpayer dollars to pay sexual harassment settlements. Now, the person accused of sexual harassment is required to reimburse the U.S. treasury within 90 days, or their wages would be garnished.(2)
This bill was propelled forward by the #MeToo movement, a movement in which many victims share their own experiences with harassment on social media platforms.(3) The movement was so loud that it reached all the way to Capitol Hill, a place in which many sexual harassment accusations have been made. In referring to the bill, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said, “My hope is that this legislation will help make hostile workplaces in Congress a relic of the past.”(4)
What may appear to be a simple shift in procedures, actually represents a greater reform of institutions. With this bill comes recognition that the burden of a sexual harassment suit should fall on the accused, not the accuser. The bill has several practical implications. For example, it creates a protected work environment which may decrease the turnover rate in female staffers, leading to more parity in office spaces. In creating an inclusive environment, the act also levels the playing feel which may inspire women to shift the balance of power in a work dynamic.
Additionally, the structure of the bill reflects a new understanding of the impact of systems on societal changes. That is to say that the bill recognizes the fact that the procedures of the 1995 Act were disadvantaged those who do not hold power. With this bill, lawmakers appear to be looking towards changing the system, instead of changing individual behaviors, or instead of simply blaming the victim.
This bill, which on its surface is just a procedural modification, could result in increased female political participation and an overall recognition of the impact of systems in establishing and perpetuating unequal power dynamics. If the bill passes in the U.S. Senate, then we can expect to see concrete change in regards to the treatment of harassment on Capitol Hill-- either way it represents a shift of thought towards seeking systemic solutions towards issues of gender parity.
(1) Daniella Diaz, Kate Sullivan and Sunlen Serfaty, “House Passes bill to address sexual harassment in Congress,” CNN, Feb. 6, 2018.
(2) Leigh Ann Caldwell and Alex Moe, “House Passes Major Sexual Harassment Reform Bill” NBC News, Feb. 6, 2018.
(3) Cristina Marcos “House Passes Landmark Bill to Overhaul Sexual Harassment Policy on Capitol Hill” The HIll, Feb. 6, 2018.
(4) Leigh Ann Caldwell and Alex Moe, “House Passes Major Sexual Harassment Reform Bill” NBC News, Feb. 6, 2018.