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Sen. Cortez Masto: It’s Time for Congress to Overhaul Its Sexual Harassment Policies

The numbers are startling. Four out of 10 female congressional staffers believe that sexual harassment is a problem on Capitol Hill, according to a 2016 CQ Roll Call survey. One out every six of these women say they themselves are survivors of sexual harassment. These numbers show just how widespread sexual misconduct continues to be in Congress. This culture must change.

Sexual harassment cannot be tolerated in our workplaces, and Congress is no exception. Earlier this year, the House of Representatives took decisive action and passed bipartisan reforms to the Congressional Accountability Act (CAA), an outdated law that currently requires sexual assault survivors to endure an antiquated and often expensive dispute resolution process. The House bill eliminates forced mediation and mandatory “cooling off” periods before a victim can bring a lawsuit.

The reforms increase transparency for awards and settlements, and require members of both the House and Senate to pay for settlements stemming from cases of sexual harassment or discrimination for which they are personally responsible. The House also passed legislation that provides staff who are survivors of harassment or discrimination access to free legal representation.

The fact that the Senate leadership has failed to bring similar legislation to a vote is simply unacceptable.

This inaction is a stark reminder that women’s voices are still underrepresented in the halls of Congress. Though all 21 of my female senator colleagues and I have come together to demand action on the CAA, we are still operating within a system that was designed without victims in mind.

As a member of the Rules Committee, I review how the Senate conducts business. Some of these rules were written before women even had the right to vote. And many more were written to protect members of Congress and prevent survivors from speaking out.

In November, the Senate took initial steps toward addressing this when we passed a bipartisan resolution to require anti-harassment training for everyone who works for the chamber. Now it is time to do more. We must reform the CAA to ensure an expeditious, transparent, and thorough investigative process for any sexual harassment or workplace misconduct allegations. And we must update the process to create an environment in which victims feel safe to come forward.

The U.S. Senate has a responsibility to be an example for the rest of the country by setting the highest standards of conduct. Creating workplaces that are safe and free of harassment and discrimination should start in the halls of Congress, and my colleagues and I will not stop fighting for the protections that all victims deserve.

Catherine Cortez Masto is the junior U.S. senator from Nevada.