Politics & Government

Not #MeToo: Senators reluctant to tackle harassment policy

In this age of #MeToo and a seemingly nonstop barrage of sexual harassment complaints against politicians, celebrities and the president, key senators are balking at overhauling Congress’ secretive system for handling such allegations.

While the House is expected to pass legislation as early as this week changing how Congress handles sexual harassment complaints, the Senate has no such plans. And two key members were dismissive of the need for further action.

That attitude is likely to be viewed as tone deaf in light of the number of members, including Al Franken and John Conyers, who resigned after being accused of improper behavior.

When pressed, some leading Senate Republicans are questioning whether legislation is even necessary.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., chairman of a key Senate committee that would consider changes, wasn’t even aware that legislation had been referred to his panel.

“Do we really need legislation to get senators to do the right thing? I would say you probably don’t,” Johnson told McClatchy, adding that he did not feel “a burning desire” to introduce a bill to change sexual harassment procedures, himself. “If somebody does, we’ll take it up,” he added.

The chairman of another Senate committee that could review such measures, Republican Richard Shelby of Alabama, brushed off questions about whether his Rules Committee planned to look into further measures. The committee, he said, already “passed a rule on that,” referring to a new anti-harassment training requirement the Senate approved in November.

That could bog down efforts to reorganize the Office of Compliance, which handles harassment complaints for Congress, and end the use of taxpayer dollars to settle those complaints.

Johnson and Shelby’s attitudes contrast sharply to the consensus in the House, where members from across the political spectrum are rallying around a bill to dramatically change how Congress handles complaints. Backers of the legislation expect the House to pass the bill when lawmakers return to Washington this week.

The House action will be Capitol Hill’s most comprehensive response thus far to the #MeToo movement. What began as a set of explosive reports in the New York Times and New Yorker in October detailing Hollywood mega-producer Harvey Weinstein’s years of predatory behavior have snowballed into a much larger moment of reckoning for the country — and its politicians.

Sexual harassment and assault allegations have ended the careers of senators, Congressmen and staffers from the liberal left to the conservative Tea Party.

The latest lawmaker swept up in the #MeToo net: Republican Rep. Patrick Meehan of Pennsylvania, who is retiring after admitting to pursuing a much younger female staffer and calling her his “soul mate.” He denied it was harassment. Meehan used taxpayer funds to settle a harassment complaint from the staffer last year.

President Donald Trump has been one of the few political leaders able to brush off allegations of sexual misconduct, winning election in 2016 even after more than a dozen women came forward to complain about his past behavior.

Some women members of Congress are planning to highlight the issue at Trump’s first State of the Union address on Tuesday by wearing black and bringing survivors of harassment as their guests.

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., for example, has invited civil rights activist Tarana Burke, who is credited with starting the #MeToo movement. And Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., is bringing Patricia Teffenhart, executive director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

If Congress eventually succeeds in sending a bill to protect harassment victims to the president’s desk, it will make for some similarly awkward optics.

For that to happen, though, the Senate has to act.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., right, answers a question during a news conference on sexual harassment. Jacquelyn Martin AP

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., has introduced two bills to update the complaint and settlement procedures, but neither has received a hearing in the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee that Johnson helms.

Informed of Sen. Gillibrand’s legislation, introduced in November and December, he replied, “We get a lot of stuff before the committee.”

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., a senior rules committee member, said he isn’t opposed to legislation to update how Congress handles sexual harassment cases, but wasn’t certain the Senate could pass such a measure.

“Finding the floor time to do things is so difficult. So we’ll see,” said Blunt.

Blunt, along with Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., is helping lead a coalition seeking common ground.

The ad hoc group of rules committee members has been tight-lipped about its work as they try to build internal consensus. “We’re working on some legislation,” Blunt confirmed. But he said they may instead consider changes to chamber rules — the internal procedural guidelines that govern the Senate, but don’t have the force of law. That decision is “yet to be determined,” he said.

Unlike legislation, advancing new rules does not require days of debate time on the Senate floor. But they also don’t have the same effect. It will take a new law to amend the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act, which created the cumbersome system Congress now uses to handle workplace complaints. That’s why the House bill includes both rules changes and legislative updates.

After two lengthy public hearings, a flurry of proposed bills and extended bipartisan negotiations, Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., introduced the Congressional Accountability Reform Act on Jan. 18. It is scheduled for House action this week. It’s expected to pass easily, which will intensify pressure on the Senate to act.

The consensus legislation updates the 1995 law, streamlining the process for pursuing a complaint with the Office of Compliance, creating a legal advocate to assist House employees, and requiring Congress to repay the Treasury for any funds used to settle complaints.

Critics say the House bill does not go far enough because it does not make such payouts public, among other things.

But it’s won the support of outspoken critics of the current system such as Speier. It’s also received the endorsement of Speaker Paul Ryan and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Emily Cadei: 202-383-6153, @emilycadei

Lindsay Wise: 202-383-6007, @lindsaywise