Opinion: Sexual Harassment Legislation Breaks With Glacial Pace on Capitol Hill

Success often comes down to seizing the moment

California Rep. Jackie Speier is flanked by her staffers Molly Fishman, left, and Miriam Goldstein. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Like most Hill staffers, we came here with a dream of making a difference and quickly realized that the wheels of change grind at a glacial pace in Congress. It’s certainly not a secret, but until you become part of the process, it’s hard to understand just how painful it can be.

You can imagine our elation at finally seeing our dream realized last week, when the House of Representatives passed two pieces of legislation that will radically alter the way Congress prevents and responds to harassment and discrimination in the congressional workplace.

If you had told us last fall that the basis for the measures, our ME TOO Congress Act, would pass the House floor by a voice vote in less than four months, we would have thought you were crazy.

Our work, however, is not done.

It is our goal for H.R. 4924, the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 Reform Act, or CAA Reform Act, to serve as a model for the nation. We owe it to the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, which galvanized the nation after news of Harvey Weinstein’s abuses became public and made it possible for us to shine the spotlight of truth and justice into Congress’s deepest, darkest places.

We owe it to the brave survivors who we sat with, listened to on the phone, and heard from via email and letters. We owe it to all Americans to make sure that our ability to work across the aisle in passing the CAA Reform Act is not the exception, because everyone has the right to serve our country, to pursue their dream in competitive athletics, to obtain an education, and to work in a job that is safe and promotes respect.

As staff, we learned that success often comes down to seizing the moment. What was most eye-opening and empowering was seeing that good old-fashioned legislating is still possible, even in the deeply partisan world that defines the Hill and D.C. politics. The fact that we were able to work with our Republican colleagues, and received support from Speaker Paul Ryan and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, was critical, as was early buy-in from our co-leads in the House and Senate. They were willing to take on an issue that is never popular — policing one’s peers — because it was the right thing to do. Also key was the commitment and expertise of the chairs and ranking members of the House Administration and Ethics committees and their staff, especially Jamie Fleet and Kim Betz.

And then there was the friendship that blossomed between our boss, Rep. Jackie Speier, a Bay Area Democrat, and Rep. Bradley Byrne, an Alabama Republican.

All of this proved that although we have political differences, Democrats and Republicans share many of the same goals and values, and that we can work together for the betterment of our country. It was in those moments that we would almost have to pinch each other and say, “This is really happening, isn’t it?”

As for our part in the process, it came down to a lot of hard work and luck. We have the privilege of working for Rep. Speier, one of the strongest women we know.

Our boss has made the fight for the rights of women and girls a priority her entire career because, as she says, if she doesn’t do it, who will? She first tackled abuse in the congressional workplace in 2014, and received significant pushback. But she never backed down, and even shared her own story as a former congressional staffer who was attacked by a chief of staff. It was in large part her determination, her willingness to put herself on the line, and the support of our colleagues, that made it possible for us to bridge the partisan gap and craft real solutions that would directly affect members and staff. It required a lot of long days and nights, many lost weekends and holidays, and extensive back-and-forth with other members, their staff, policy experts, survivors, and their advocates.

But all that work paid off last week, and it continues to reap benefits. For the first time in either of our careers, we have witnessed and helped bring about a seismic cultural shift that affects each and every person in this institution. We have made a difference. We have done what we came here to do. And we know we can do it again.

Molly Fishman is senior legislative assistant and Miriam Goldstein is legislative director for Rep. Jackie Speier, a Democrat representing California’s 14th District.

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