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COLUMN: Raise the Standard

December 4, 2017
Weekly Column and Op-Ed

The recent cases of sexual harassment allegations against lawmakers and their staff, past and present, demand a strong response from Congress. Our bosses are you, the American people, and you deserve accountability. Staff working in the U.S. Capitol, just like employees in the private sector, deserve to work in a professional environment that is safe. Investigations begun by the bipartisan Ethics Committee are appropriate because this is an issue that should go beyond partisan politics. While ethics investigations are important, Congress should also make immediate legislative changes to end special treatment that would never be permitted in the private sector.

Congress must be held to a higher standard and act to create a safe working environment. As a first step, the House unanimously approved legislation, House Resolution 630, last week. This legislation, sponsored by Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA), requires all representatives and their staff to complete mandatory anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training during each session of Congress.

Congress should not stop there, but we must continue to act quickly to further address this serious matter. This week, the House Administration Committee will hold a hearing to discuss updating the Congressional Accountability Act, which provides rules for workplace safety for Congress, and necessary reforms to the complaint process for victims. This is not a partisan issue, and changes need to provide the accountability that Americans expect of elected representatives.

This week, I have also signed on to cosponsor legislation introduced by Rep. Ron DeSantis, (R-FL) called the Congressional Accountability and Hush Fund Elimination Act. This legislation ends the ‘hush funds’ that have used taxpayer dollars to pay settlements for harassment or assault claims. It would unseal records so that the public know who settled and for what reason. The bill promotes transparency and sheds light on workplace safety in Congress while protecting victims. Victims’ names would be redacted to preserve their privacy, and perpetrators would be required to reimburse taxpayers.

There is also the matter of nondisclosure agreements, which have been used to keep victims quiet. The Congressional Accountability and Hush Fund Elimination Act would prohibit nondisclosure agreements as a precondition to initiate procedures to address sexual harassment or assault claims. It would also permit victims of sexual harassment or assault to make public statements about their claim, regardless of any previously signed nondisclosure agreement.

These necessary steps must be taken to promote transparency, accountability and to restore trust. On this urgent matter, Congress must act without hesitating to ensure that the people’s representatives are held to a higher standard.