This post has been updated with the latest news.
Earlier this year, it seemed as if Congress was going to do something to make it more difficult for lawmakers to use their power for sex or mistreatment in the workplace, and to prevent an environment in which their top aides do the same. But that momentum has stalled, even as lawmakers continue to lose their jobs over workplace misconduct.
Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-Conn.) announced Monday she would not seek reelection after The Washington Post and other news outlets revealed she let her chief of staff stay on the job for three months after she learned he allegedly threatened to kill someone who had worked in the office.
“Too many women have been harmed by harassment in the workplace,” Esty said in the statement. “In the terrible situation in my office, I could have and should have done better.”
She vowed to spend her final months fighting for change to the old-boys-club rules that inevitably allow the powerful to get away with mistreating lower-level staffers.
But what Esty misses is that the House of Representatives already voted in February to change decades-old procedures for how staffers report sexual harassment and assault accusations. That was shortly after eight other lawmakers in Congress lost their jobs or announced they would not run for reelection amid sexual misconduct allegations. The goal of making it easier for a staffer to bring an accusation against a lawmaker.
But nearly two months later, Congress has not moved a millimeter to update its sexual harassment policies, and it is a very real possibility Congress may not pass any kind of legislation to change its culture of sexual harassment anytime soon.
For most of those changes from the House bill to go into effect, the Senate has to also pass the bill. A Republican Senate aide said Monday that consideration of sexual harassment legislation is on the Senate’s to-do list. But advocates for reforming the system ASAP point out that the Senate did not take it up right after the House sent it over, nor in a must-pass spending bill lawmakers passed earlier this month.
That is despite lawmakers saying sexual misconduct is rampant on Capitol Hill. That is despite every single female senator demanding this week that Senate leaders allow votes on legislation to improve the system.
That is also despite horrifying news of misconduct still coming out of Capitol Hill and felling lawmakers’ jobs. The Washington Post’s Elise Viebeck reported last week on Esty:
The threat from Rep. Elizabeth Esty’s chief of staff arrived in a voice mail.
“You better f—–g reply to me or I will f—–g kill you,” Tony Baker said in the May 5, 2016, recording left for Anna Kain, a former Esty aide Baker had once dated.
As Esty herself acknowledged to Viebeck, the rules are not set up to handle her chief of staff’s alleged misconduct — or her handling of it. While the aide is not accused of sexual misconduct, his alleged actions fall under the general umbrella, given he is accused of threatening, yelling and even punching someone he dated in the office.
The congresswoman said she felt pressured to sign a nondisclosure agreement, which kept him on longer. She said the system just does not work to quickly protect staffers in harm’s way, even if she wanted to.
“Clearly that’s what it’s all set up to do — to protect the member of Congress whose bad behavior caused the problem,” Esty told Viebeck.
Okay, so even a congresswoman in the headlines for doing something wrong with regard to misconduct in the workplace is acknowledging the rules need to change.
Exactly why Congress seems to have stalled on officially making those changes is hard to pin down. Congress is more or less done with passing major legislation for the rest of this year. That does not mean it cannot pass this rules change, which affects only lawmakers and those who work for them. But Congress also is focused on reelection in November, so any legislation that does not already have momentum probably will not suddenly get attention. It’s also inherently difficult for Congress to police itself, by passing laws that could make it easier for lawmakers to be held accountable for their and their staff’s actions.
A Republican Senate aide said that the Senate didn’t want to rush passing legislation that would drastically change the rules on misconduct for its senators without giving all senators a chance to weigh in. That’s why this wasn’t attached to a must-pass spending bill that Trump recently signed into law.
But Congress also risks losing any incentive to change the rules that could make it easier for lawmakers be held accountable. As the momentum from last year’s #MeToo movement fades from the public eye, the question for advocates remains the same as when this the movement started: When, if ever, will Congress move to lead on making workplace culture safer for women?