By: Connor McNairn, Columnist
In the past few months, cases of sexual harassment and assault have risen to the forefront of political conversations. In October, renowned television host Bill O’Reilly settled a sexual harassment case with a Fox News contributor for a whopping $32 million. Harvey Weinstein, the highly accredited Hollywood film producer of works like “Shakespeare in Love,” “Nine” and many others was accused by dozens of women of heinous acts of sexual harassment and assault. Even the widely beloved Kevin Spacey, known to many as President Francis Underwood of “House of Cards,” has been accused of assaulting or harassing several individuals, ranging from actor Anthony Rapp when Rapp was just 14 to Harry Dreyfuss, who was 18 at the time of the alleged assault.
The United States has a serious problem with sexual assault and harassment in the workplace; and this week, a United States senator took steps to limit the frequency of these cases in the legislative branch and provide remedies for victims.
Kirsten Gillibrand, a U.S. senator from New York, proposed thorough legislation Thursday that specifically addressed how sexual assault and harassment would be handled in Congress. Gillibrand’s bill specifically targets the Office of Compliance, which works directly to maintain safety, health and general employee rights in the legislative branch.
Shockingly, the current legal process – established in 1995 – for sexual harassment victims through the Office of Compliance requires victims to go through a 30-day mediation period before advancing their allegations. Gillibrand’s bill eliminates this required mediation, and further establishes an advisor in the Compliance office to aid victims with their cases.
Gillibrand’s legislation requires sexual harassment training for Congress members and their staff, and it also provides surveys for Congress members and staffers to confidentially report sexual harassment incidents in Congress.
In essence, Gillibrand has fearlessly put her name on legislation that is long overdue.
Throughout recent history, complaints of sexual harassment in Congress have been frequent and generally have gone unanswered. Victims who have come forward have been threatened with their careers, and one victim noted that her “male colleagues would excuse it.”
Most recently, four Congress members from California – former Republican Rep. Mary Bono, former Democratic Rep. Hilda Solis, former Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, and current Democratic Rep. Linda Sanchez – have come forward alleging sexual harassment by their colleagues.
Gillibrand’s proposal has already been backed by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. In light of the aforementioned allegations, Pelosi acknowledged that although the circumstance for Gillibrand’s legislation is sad and undesirable, she is encouraged by its content.
In addition to Pelosi, House Speaker Paul Ryan also encouraged sexual harassment training for his colleagues, acknowledging that House members should “lead by example.”
It truly is a sad day in the United States Congress when victims of harassment and assault lack the resources necessary to protect both their professional and personal integrity. And although Gillibrand’s bill will hopefully motivate strong changes in the behavior of male Congressional colleagues, I reluctantly acknowledge that it will not solve the problem in aggregate. Gillibrand’s efforts, though, provide a strong foundation for all lawmakers moving forward.