Congress has a sexual harassment problem—and isn’t taking it seriously.
Why do I say that? Because even after the public has spent the last year watching members of Congress, of both parties, resign after sexual harassment scandals—including cases that involved taxpayer funds—we still couldn’t pass an overwhelmingly bipartisan bill that would have directly addressed this issue. If we can’t clean up our own act, how can anyone expect Congress to do the right thing for victims and survivors in the rest of the country? Congress has to do better.
I believe that elected officials should be held to the highest ethical standard—not the lowest. I also believe that taxpayers should never again be left paying the tab for a politician’s sexual harassment settlement. We can solve both of these issues, but Congress has to take action for that to happen. I was proud to introduce a bipartisan bill called the Congressional Harassment Reform Act, and I am standing with all of my women Senate colleagues in urging congressional leadership to do what’s right and pass my bill.
The bill works like this: no taxpayer-funded settlements for politicians, the people who suffered harassment get the right to decide whether to go public or not, no more unnecessarily prolonged process or “cooling off” requirement before employees can file their claim, and a survey for staff members every other year. These are simple steps that would show that Congress is protecting victims and not harassers. Congress needs to show leadership and make it clear that we won’t tolerate sexual harassment anymore.
It’s vitally important that we have these conversations about sexual harassment right now. I believe we should care about and value one another; sexual harassment is a scourge that destroys such an environment, creating lasting personal and professional harm and devaluing women. Too many institutions continue to protect predators. Whether it’s in the military, a college campus, the NFL, corporate America, or the halls of Congress, survivors of harassment too often continue to be disbelieved, blamed, and even retaliated against. This stops when we value all people—women and men who are harassed—and when we listen, believe them, and create a system in which justice is possible.
I often tell people that on a good day, Congress is still 20 years behind the rest of the country. Let’s make sexual harassment an exception to that rule. Let’s make sure Congress is keeping up with the country, and listening to the powerful stories being told in the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements. Congress can’t ignore this crisis any longer.
I will continue doing everything I can to pass the Congressional Harassment Reform Act, and I encourage everyone else who cares about this crisis to keep raising their voices too. The only way anything ever changes in Washington is when people speak out and demand it, so keep making yourselves heard, don’t give up, and we will finally solve this problem.
Kirsten Gillibrand is the junior U.S. senator from New York.