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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: Congress must protect workers from harassment

Congress has no Human Resources Department, and it offers its workers woefully inadequate protections. It’s appalling what women (almost always women) have to endure after being sexually harassed.

That has to end.

Twenty-two years ago, Congress passed a law to bring the offices of senators and representatives under the same workplace discrimination laws as the rest of America. Congress was exempt from laws related to sexual harassment, racial discrimination and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

But the process established under the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act to deal with sexual harassment complaints was designed to protect the institution, not victims. It takes at least three months before for a Capitol Hill victim of sexual harassment can file a formal complaint. Before that there is a mandatory mediation process, followed by “counseling.”

If victims hang in there and a settlement is reached, the details are kept secret and the taxpayers pick up the bill. The Office of Compliance, which was established under the 1995 law, has paid out about $1 million in settlements this year. There is no breakdown on the nature of the offenses or against whom the complaints were lodged.

It’s little wonder that many victims choose to leave rather than put up with a hostile workplace. It’s little wonder members of Congress act so cavalierly about the issue. The consequences are practically nil. Furthermore, the law doesn’t cover many Capitol Hill workers, such as interns.

As sexual allegations spread through the entertainment industry, media and politics, Congress must immediately address the way it deals with complaints, especially in light of the disturbing news surrounding Sen. Al Franken, Rep. John Conyers and Senate candidate Roy Moore.

Congress should be a beacon of hope on this issue, not a safe harbor for creeps. Quickly passing a bill and sending it to the president (who faces his own allegations) would demonstrate that the good-old-boy days are numbered, and that victims are being put first.

A couple of women in Congress are promoting reform bills. Rep. Jackie Speiers, D-Calif., has taken the lead in the House. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., has followed suit in the Senate. This shouldn’t be a partisan issue.

Speiers says she was a victim of harassment as a young congressional staffer. She says there are two current members of Congress who are harassers that the public isn’t aware of.

She wants to speed up the process, name names and end the “slush fund” used to pay off victims. Instead, perpetrators would have to use their own money. She would give the Office of Compliance the resources it needs to effectively investigate complaints. In addition, sexual harassment training would become mandatory.

The avalanche of news about sexual harassment and the blatant abuse of power it entails has been stunning. This issue can no longer be swept aside, but it will take a cultural shift in private and public workplaces.

Congress should send a clear signal that it is ashamed of its past practices.

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