OP-ED: Congress needs to take the lead on fighting sexual harassment in the workplace

The Hill
BY REPS. KAREN HANDEL (R-GA.) AND JACKIE WALORSKI (R-IND.)

The recent revelations of sexual harassment by elected officials from across the country have revealed a throw-back culture in the halls of Congress that has virtually institutionalized sexist and vulgar behavior — and worse. For decades, misconduct has been swept under the rug. Secret settlements have been paid with taxpayer money, while many turned a blind eye, and victims have been forced to keep quiet in the aftermath.

This culture has been tolerated for far too long. And it has to end. Now, it’s time to get our House — and Senate — in order.

Some say Congress is incapable of leading on this issue, but we believe that Congress MUST lead on this issue.  How can we ask Americans to trust us as their elected leaders on the most important issues facing this country if we are unwilling to hold ourselves and our colleagues to at least the same standard as every other working American?

On Wednesday, the House passed new rules mandating sexual harassment training for every Member and all personnel. Rep. Barbara Comstock is to be commended for her leadership. The House Committee on Administration also has plans to bring additional reform bills to the House floor in the coming days and weeks. These are good first steps, but they are not nearly enough.

The Congressional Accountability Act, first enacted in 2005, needs to be modernized to require Congress to follow the same (not just some) employment laws applied to private companies and the rest of the federal government.  Further, the Office of Compliance needs to be overhauled.  We should start with replacing the entire five-member board, all of whom have been on the board since 2000.

Next, the current process for handling sexual harassment and other complaints should be scrapped and replaced with one that prioritizes fairness and respect. It also must be transparent and accountable with an unbiased, diligent yet expeditious investigative process. The practice of secret settlements and settlements paid with taxpayer money must end, and Members should be expressly prohibited from hiding settlement payments within their office budgets.

We need a system in which employees can come forward without fear of intimidation or retribution.  One in which there are real consequences and one that requires the guilty – not the taxpayers – to foot the bill for their misconduct. It must be open to the public whenever a harasser has admitted guilt, and the names of members on behalf of whom settlements for sexual harassment were filed must be released.

Still, changing the culture of Congress will take more than new rules and legislation.  For most of us, it means first and foremost remembering that we are indeed in positions of authority, and realizing that how we do our jobs is as important as what we do. For others, it will take their own personal “day of reckoning,” and for those individuals, we have no sympathy.

Being trusted to serve in Congress is a responsibility that cannot be taken lightly. With the honor of representing Americans in Congress, we must be willing to hold ourselves and those around us to the higher standard that this country deserves. It’s clear that this trust has been shaken, and the integrity of this institution is at stake. Reforms must happen – and they must happen now.

Karen Handel represents Georgia’s 6th District in the U.S. House of Representatives. The district stretches from Marietta to Brookhaven, and from Milton to Sandy Springs, Georgia. She serves on the House Judiciary Committee and the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. Jackie Walorski represents the 2nd District of Indiana, serving as a member of the House Ways and Means Committee.

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