Joe Biden is now bearing the burden of proof from 27-year-old sexual assault allegations from former staffer Tara Reade. Reviewing the lessons members of Congress should have learned in the 1990’s – lessons from the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings to the Contract with America- makes Biden’s tone-deaf denials even more fantastical.
In 1994, midway through President Bill Clinton’s first term, the Contract with America galvanized voters in federal elections with its pledge to make Congress more accountable to the American people. Its success installed a Republican majority in the House and Senate who promised major legislative reforms, the first being to apply all laws to Congress that apply to the rest of the country.
In 1995, as soon as the 104th Congress was sworn in, Republicans went to work to pass the Congressional Accountability Act. To symbolize their high priority for action, it was introduced as H.R. 1 in the House and S. 2 in the Senate. The bill proposed to extend the same workplace protections against discrimination required of the private sector to the legislative branch. Until then, Congress had not been willing or accountable to live under standards they imposed on the rest of American workplaces, including laws against sexual harassment and assault.
This turnover in party power forced then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-Delaware) to hand over the Judiciary Committee gavel to Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). Three years earlier, Chairman Biden presided in judgment over the high-profile confirmation hearings of Justice Clarence Thomas who faced sexual harassment allegations in what Thomas characterized as a “high-tech lynching.” (A lesson the Senate disgracefully repeated in the 2018 confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh.)
Now in the minority, Biden seemed disinterested about survivors of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. He declined to join eleven of his Democratic colleagues as original cosponsors of the Congressional Accountability Act (CAA) authored by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). Among other things, the CAA imposed rules for handling violations of workplace discrimination and harassment in legislative branch offices for the first time ever. It created the U.S. Congress Office of Compliance to manage these cases, including sexual assault complaints – two years after Tara Reade recalls her experience working in Sen. Biden’s office.
Incidentally, it took 25 more years and a #MeToo movement elevating attention on survivors of sexual assault for Congress to amend the law’s flaws in 2018 to compel greater transparency surrounding non-disclosure agreements and require that settlements be paid out of the pockets of perpetrators, including members of Congress, not federal taxpayers.
Following final passage on January 11, 1995, by a vote of 98-1 – with Sen. Robert Byrd (D-West Virginia) being the lone vote against – Biden remained on the Senate floor but not to make remarks celebrating the CAA’s success. In fact, Sen. Biden, a champion of the Violence Against Women Act which passed in 1994, didn’t speak at all during Senate floor debate about the importance of the CAA providing protections for survivors of sexual harassment and assault in congressional offices.
In April of 2019, TIME magazine wrote an article pinpointing Biden’s liability as he kicked off his presidential campaign: “What Men – and Women – Can Learn from Joe Biden’s ‘Inappropriate Touching.’” What the Democratic party was afraid of then is exactly why Joe Biden bears the burden of proof today regarding Tara Reade’s allegations. Biden took a pass in the 1990’s from championing survivors rights against perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault in congressional offices but led the charge against a Supreme Court nominee based on unsubstantiated claims. What he failed to learn then are critical lessons that now add to the burden of proof’s great weight.
Doreen Denny is Vice President of Government Relations for Concerned Women for America Legislative Action Committee. She served on the staff of a U.S. Senator elected in 1994.