In the wake of worldwide demand for a change in workplace cultures that effectively condone sexual misconduct, the Texas Legislature is having a #MeToo moment of its own. On Friday, a House working group is meeting to discuss how to crack down on violators in its own chamber, after reports last year of an “online whisper network” among women in the Legislature who shared their experiences with harassment.
Donna Howard is a Democratic member of the Texas House, representing District 48. She’s also co-chair of the workgroup for the House sexual harassment policy. Howard says power differentials within legislative bodies contribute to a culture that enables harassment. She says the working group, which came out of a recommendation from House Speaker Joe Straus, is working to ensure harassment isn’t tolerated.
“We’re actually going to be putting some things in place that I hope will give confidence to the public that we actually mean that,” Howard says.
The legislature has had a policy regarding sexual harassment for some time, Howard says, but she says an indicator of its lack of seriousness is that it lists an inaccurate phone number for those wanting to report abuse.
“We made a quick revision that addressed some of those things, as well as put more information into the policy,” Howard says. “We did that knowing we were going to spend a lot more time trying to come up with best practices and get something really solid in place.”
Howard says a legislative body faces unique challenges when it comes to creating and enforcing a sexual harassment policy.
“The challenge that legislatures, in particular, face is that we are elected,” she says. “We have no boss, per se, other than the voters.”
She says incidents that occur between elections don’t result in immediate accountability for a lawmaker until it’s time to face the voters again. She says the House working group will discuss having third parties respond to complaints against elected officials.
Written by Shelly Brisbin.