Murkowski joins women senators to push for reform of harassment rules

WASHINGTON — Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski joined female senators Wednesday to express "deep disappointment" in the Senate's failure to rewrite its workplace misconduct rules in the recent omnibus spending bill.

On Wednesday, Murkowski joined her colleagues to press Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to tee up legislation to reform how Congress manages staff problems with sexual harassment and discrimination. Murkowski is one of 22 women in the U.S. Senate, five of whom are Republicans.

The concern comes in the wake of a national discussion about sexual assault and harassment that began with revelations about Hollywood moguls and spread outward, toppling the careers of more than a few politicians. That illuminated how workplace harassment and discrimination have been handled in Congress, a world that is often as insular as it is unusual.

[How Congress plays by different rules on sexual harassment and misconduct]

Complaints in Congress are handled internally, with a centralized office that sometimes requires someone who has been harassed to spend time in counseling with the co-worker — or boss — who was doing the harassing. Recent news also revealed a legal congressional honeypot, an account that some lawmakers have used to settle harassment claims out of court.

Both Murkowski and Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan, also a Republican, signed on as co-sponsors to a bill New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand introduced in December targeting sexual harassment on Capitol Hill.

"Although the Congressional Accountability Act implemented meaningful reforms when it became law in 1995, it continues to require survivors to endure an antiquated dispute resolution process, including a month-long counseling session, forced mediation and a 30-day 'cooling off' period before a victim can make a decision whether to pursue justice in a courtroom or continue with administrative procedures," the women senators wrote to McConnell on Wednesday.


The Senate did pass a resolution in November that requires anti-harassment training for senators and staff once each Congress (a two-year cycle). But the senators are hoping for more.

In February, the House passed two bipartisan bills that created an Office of Employee Advocacy, offering free legal representation to victims of harassment or discrimination, and mandating that lawmakers personally pay for harassment settlements resulting from their own actions. Senate staffers who are victims of harassment have to pay for legal help themselves, the senators wrote.

And it's a problem, they said, citing a survey that found four in 10 women who are congressional staffers "believe that sexual harassment is a problem on Capitol Hill and one out of six women in the same survey responded that they have been the survivors of sexual harassment."

"Survivors who have bravely come forward to share their stories have brought to light just how widespread harassment and discrimination continue to be throughout Capitol Hill. No longer can we allow the perpetrators of these crimes to hide behind a 23-year-old law. It's time to rewrite the Congressional Accountability Act and update the process through which survivors seek justice."

Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Gillibrand of New York and Patty Murray of Washington led the drafting of the letter.

Erica Martinson

Erica Martinson is a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News based in Washington, D.C.