By Megan Lehman
The recent onslaught of sexual harassment claims against politicians and those in the public spotlight has created unity across the aisle. It is not a secret that our two political parties do not often see eye to eye. But these sexual attacks are not based on party politics. They affect every gender and every part of the political spectrum, therefore, the response from our legislators must be a unified effort.
On December 14, both Republican and Democratic senators introduced legislation to combat sexual harassment and the discrimination in Congress. The aim is to bring much more transparency and accountability in to the sexual harassment reporting process.
This legislation, the Congressional Harassment Reform Act, would completely replace the current process for reporting these attacks. It would also extend the protections provided by the legislation to interns and fellows, and eliminate forced mediation. It would also take away the blanket of secrecy that the current process requires, by allowing victims to speak publicly about their case and instruct all members of Congress who are found to have perpetrated these attacks to pay all settlements out of their own pockets instead of using taxpayer funds.
Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) stated, “This bipartisan legislation takes the necessary steps to provide victims with greater protections and choice, holds Members of Congress liable for their wrongdoings, and protects taxpayer dollars. Victims are coming forward and making their voices heard; it’s critical that we take action now to protect and defend them.”
Besides all the obvious benefits to this legislation, one that is sure to affect the way things are done in Washington is the requirement that forces all lawmakers accused of such horrific crimes to pay for those acts themselves. Many lawmakers have made their way into the spotlight this year for claims of sexual assault and harassment against them.
Representative Blake Farenthold (R-TX) came under fire when, after being accused of sexual harassment by a female former aid, the world learned that an $84,000 settlement was paid from the Treasury Department on his behalf. After stating he would take out a loan to pay the taxpayers back for this misuse of dollars, Farenthold has decided not to run for reelection. Legal counsel has since advised Farenthold to wait and see what changes Congress will make before he begins paying the taxpayers back. Former Democratic Michigan Rep. John Conyers Jr., resigned last year following the report stating that $27,000 from his office budget was paid out after a female former aide accused him of sexual harassment.
While clearly much more publicized, claims of sexual assault and harassment are not just aimed against male politicians. California Democratic Assemblywoman and #MeToo leader, Cristina Garcia, has been accused of groping a male staffer from another lawmaker’s office. Garcia, the head of the Legislative Women’s Caucus and a major component in the state’s anti-harassment movement, has been said to have squeezed the buttocks and attempt to grab the crotch of Daniel Fierro during a legislative softball game in 2014.
Fierro did not report the experience at the time, but after seeing how outspoken the assemblywoman became when the #MeToo movement was on the rise, he decided to speak up. “If the person leading the charge on it isn’t credible it just ends up hurting the credibility of these very real stories,” Fierro told the Associated Press.
This story, while still under investigation, reminds us that being victims of sexual assault and harassment is not just a definition assigned to women. Even stated by Garcia herself, all allegations and claims of sexual misconduct must be taken seriously and investigated.
With some hope and effort from all parties, this incredible display of bipartisanship will leach in to all areas of our government and inspire positive change that we can all get behind. In a country so divided, this display of teamwork, the bipartisanship that we so desperately need, is a step in the right direction.