In the wake of the #MeToo movement, and given the number of sexual harassment and abuse allegations against members of other legislative bodies in the country, this Virginia General Assembly session – with 15 new Democrats, most of whom are women – would seem to be a time to take every precaution to make sure that House members and their staffs are well-informed about sexual harassment. And since it’s largely up to the legislative bodies to regulate themselves, there have been several bills proposed this year about sexual harassment training.
But when HB371 made it to the floor today, it had already morphed substantially from its original version, losing some of its teeth along the way. The original version, with bipartisan patrons Roxann Robinson (R) and Kaye Kory (D) in the House, plus Barbara Favola (D), Jennifer McClellan (D) and Glen Sturtevant (D) in the Senate, called for annual sexual harassment training to be offered through the Department of Human Resource Management (DHRM), with the records kept by the same agency.The House Rules Committee (you remember, the one that Speaker Cox stacked with nonproportional members against the very rules of proportional committees that the House itself had voted on) changed the bill so that the training would be only once every two years, and would be provided by the House or Senate Clerk’s office, with the records maintained by the Clerk’s office.
But is it putting the fox in charge of the hen house to have the Clerk’s office responsible for designing the training, overseeing its administration, and maintaining the records afterwards?
So Delegate Watts, whose own similar bill HB1057 had been rolled into HB371, proposed another substitute version on the House floor today. Her substitute allowed elected legislators and their assistants to take a training designed by and administered by the Clerk’s office, but adding additional stringent conditions that the training should cover:
The sexual harassment training course provided by the Clerk of the House of Delegates and the Clerk of the Senate shall be available on-line 24 hours per day seven days a week and shall include but not be limited to discussion of (i) the inclusion of member actions when performing official duties covered under the General Assembly Conflicts of Interests Act (§ 30-100 et seq.); (ii) the inclusion of communications or actions undertaken with other state employees, contract employees, applicants for employment, customers, vendors, members of the media, lobbyists, members of the public, or volunteers; (iii) the Department of Human Resources Management Workplace Harassment Policy provision that managers, supervisors, and members who knowingly fail to take appropriate corrective action regarding allegations shall be in violation of the sexual harassment policy; (iv) the adopted policies of the House of Delegates or of the Senate governing how allegations of violations may be made, sharing of information, investigative procedures, determination of need for disclosure to law enforcement to protect public safety, committed violations of this chapter; and (v) the remedies available under this chapter and the Commonwealth Workplace Harassment Policy that are in addition to any other civil remedies and criminal sanctions provided under law.
As a backup plan to her substitute in case the substitute was voted down, she also drafted three separate amendments to HB371 that would accomplish the same more careful sexual harassment training, with the opportunity for any number of the three changes to be accepted.
All this caused the Republicans to be so flustered that Speaker Cox had to adjourn for a few minutes so that everyone could figure out how to vote. The Democrats also huddled up to get their strategy in place. When they reconvened, both sides took the opportunity to discuss the bill and the suggested changes. Delegate Robinson spoke about her bill, saying that it was important to have this training and that it wasn’t that SHE didn’t trust her peers, it was that the public needed to trust them–needed to know that when they legislated their own behavior, they did so in the most stringent way possible. Which was odd, since Delegate Watts’ substitute/amendments were adding additional conditions to make the training more thorough.
Delegate Watts spoke about her substitute, arguing for why having an outside agency administer the training was so important, and discussing the various ways that legislators interact with others where harassment issues might arise–not just in the chamber with each other, but back in their districts, with lobbyists, with their constituents, etc. The Republicans then proceeded to vote down the substitute.
And the amendments were discussed one by one. By this point, apparently Delegate Gilbert was getting annoyed and tired of the proceeding, because he asked to speak and then declared that this was “much ado about nothing.” And the entire chamber gasped–literally! (See about 2:40)
After the year that we’ve seen, with millions of women speaking out and saying #MeToo, and dozens of news stories about politicians and Hollywood producers and company CEOs being accused of sexual harassment, Delegate Gilbert thought that a discussion about how to get the training right was “much ado about nothing!” The rest of the amendments were voted down–on party lines, because apparently sexual harassment policy is a partisan issue too, and the weakened version of HB371 that the House Rules Committee wrote moved on to its third reading, presumably tomorrow.
I have two further thoughts about this. The first is that it is virtually impossible that of the 50 Republican members of the House in attendance today, every single one thinks that sexual harassment training should be administered by the Clerk’s office rather than DHRM–it’s probably also unlikely that all 49 of the Democratic members thinks it should not. So, we’ve clearly descended into a hyper-partisan world where everyone is entrenched in the position that their party peers are taking. Which is not good for anyone. The second is that it’s not a coincidence that the party with 47% of its Delegates being female wanted a more stringent sexual harassment policy than the party with 10% of its members being female.