The State of #MeToo in Congress ahead of Trump's speech

The State of #MeToo in Congress ahead of Trump's speech
Posted at 8:31 AM, Jan 29, 2018
and last updated 2018-01-29 09:31:29-05

When Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address on Tuesday evening, he'll be confronted by an issue that dogged his 2016 campaign and continues to resurface during his presidency: allegations of sexual harassment.

Lawmakers are making a statement at arguably the President's biggest speech of the year amid a nationwide reckoning about sexual harassment. Women in Hollywood are wearing black on the red carpet. More than 150 women came forward to tell the stories of how a former doctor for the American gymnastics team abused them, and in a span of a few months, several male lawmakers have lost their jobs over allegations of sexual misconduct.

Eager to keep discussions about sexual harassment front and center at Trump's national address, some lawmakers are planning to honor the growing "Me Too" movement by coordinating what they wear and bringing guests that represent the effort. Some will wear black, a move that echoes the women of Hollywood that wore black in solidarity with sexual misconduct victims at the Golden Globes earlier this year, while others have invited victims of harassment and misconduct, as well as activists, to attend the President's address as their guests.



In addition, Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, a co-chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus on Black Women and Girls, plans to wear a red pin in honor of Recy Taylor, and is encouraging other colleagues to do the same. Taylor, an African-American woman from Alabama, was raped by a group of white men in the 1940s, and her decision to speak out about what happened despite death threats made her a towering civil rights figure.

Watson Coleman plans to bring Taylor's nieceas her guest to Tuesday night's remarks. She's not alone. Erin Walton, the executive director of Rape Victim Advocates will attend as a guest of Rep. Mike Quigley; Fatima Goss Graves, the president of the National Women's Law Center, will be a guest of Rep. Jackie Speier; and Danielle McGuire, an author and historian who has researched and written about Taylor, will be a guest of Rep. Brenda Lawrence.


Congress addressing its own issues


On Capitol Hill, lawmakers are grappling with how to handle sexual harassment and misconduct on both sides of the Rotunda. Earlier this month, Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Patrick Meehan came under fire for using taxpayer moneyto settle a sexual misconduct claim with a former aide. Meehan said Thursday that he did not plan to seek re-election.

Meehan, who was stripped of his spot on the House Ethics Committee by House Speaker Paul Ryan, has denied pursuing a romantic relationship with his former aide but said he had "affection for her" and considered her his "soul mate." The House Ethics Committee launched an investigation into the aide's accusations and the possibility that Meehan misused official resources by using funds from his congressional office to settle her complaint.

CNN contacted the congressional office of each member of Congress and asked each member whether they were ever accused of sexual harassment or settled a claim. Roughly 40 offices did not respond. Meehan's office was one of those.

While non-responses do not suggest or translate to wrongdoing, the dozens of offices that were unwilling to provide answers appear to suggest that sexual harassment remains an uncomfortable topic for many elected officials, even amid widespread calls for more openness and transparency.

The Pennsylvania Republican is not the only lawmaker currently under investigation by the committee: the House Ethics Committee is currently also investigating Reps. Blake Farenthold, a Texas Republican, and Ruben Kihuen, a Nevada Democrat, for allegations of sexual harassment. Both have said they will not seek re-election.

Farenthold has denied some of the accusations made against him related to sexual harassment and having a hostile work environment, though Farenthold also has said some of the language he used was not appropriate, and in a statement, apologized for his role in creating a workplacethat failed "to treat people with the respect they deserved." Kihuen has repeatedly denied accusations of sexual harassment.

The President himself also continues to be confronted by a wide range of accusations -- ranging from sexual harassment and sexual assault to lewd behavior --from at least 15 women. Of the women, 13 say Trump attacked them directly and two others say they witnessed behavior that made them uncomfortable. All the alleged incidents took place prior to his assuming the presidency. Trump has denied all wrongdoingrelated to the accusations, and many lawmakers have gone out of their way to put the focus on advocacy for victims and survivors as opposed to the President.


Updating the laws for the Hill


Congress is also currently engaged in a debate on how to best handle sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace. Earlier this week, a bipartisan group of House lawmakers unveiled a long-awaited plan to tackle those complaints. Supporters say the bill is the most significant step in recent years toward addressing sexual harassment on Capitol Hill and that it would make the process less arduous for victims.

The legislation would streamline the process a House of Representatives employee must go through to report a workplace claim, including eliminating the mandatory 30-day counseling and mediation period. It would also require members of Congress to repay the Treasury fund controlled by the Office of Compliance within 90 days, including members who leave office, and would require that each claim in which an award or settlement is made be referred to the House Ethics Committee -- something that is currently not done automatically.

Under existing law, there is currently no requirement that lawmakers repay the fund for settlements made with taxpayer money -- though one lawmaker, Republican Rep. Blake Farenthold of Texas, has said he plans to repay an $84,000 settlement with a former aide using a personal loan. He has yet to do so.

Ethics watchdogs though say the bill weakens the authority of the Office of Congressional Ethics, the independent entity probing lawmakers' behavior, and could make it harder for the public to learn about cases of misconduct.

Lawmakers have been under pressure to expose their colleagues that have paid settlements using taxpayer money.

The Office of Compliance currently has provided only limited information about settlements, largely at the behest of lawmakers. The House legislation, though, would require the Office of Compliance to report and publish information on awards and settlements -- including the employing office, the settlement or award amount, whether the claim was against a member and whether the member has personally repaid the House fund -- every six months.

It also addresses an issue at the heart of Meehan's case: Members would not be allowed to pay settlements out of their office's budget, known specifically as the Members' Representational Allowance.

The presence of guests tied to the #MeToo movement, and the sartorial display of some Democratic lawmakers, will bring a renewed focus to the debate in the midst of one of the biggest ceremonial nights of the Presidency.

"The conversation about sexual harassment and assault in our nation is long overdue but through the efforts of Chessy and the #MeToo movement it is finally gaining steam," said New Hampshire Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, who is bringing Chessy Prout, a young woman who was assaulted at a New Hampshire boarding school. "This is an issue that is deeply personal to me and I'm excited to host Chessy to signal that this national movement will continue to grow and succeed."

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