Biden Voted to Block Creation of Senate Office That Handles Sexual Harassment Complaints

Then-senator Joe Biden backed a procedural motion declaring the office unconstitutional

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May 5, 2020

Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden voted in favor of a motion that would have blocked the creation of the Senate office that receives sexual harassment complaints.

Biden was one of six Democrats who joined an effort to block the Office of Senate Fair Employment Practices in 1991 on the grounds that it was unconstitutional. The vote came less than two years before Tara Reade allegedly filed a complaint about her treatment as an employee in Biden's Senate office.

Created as a part of the Civil Rights Act of 1991 in the shadow of Anita Hill's testimony on Capitol Hill, the Office of Senate Fair Employment Practices was an attempt to remedy the fact that Congress was, at the time, exempt from workplace discrimination laws. An amendment to the civil rights law introduced by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) chartered the office and provided "procedures to protect the right of Senate and other government employees … to be free from discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, or disability."

Grassley's amendment sparked fierce opposition from some of his colleagues, led by then-Republican senator Warren Rudman (N.H.), who argued that the office would become a "Son of Frankenstein" and warned that "everyone here will be in jeopardy and we will have done much violence to this body and the Constitution."

Rudman raised a point of order aimed at declaring the amendment unconstitutional and striking it from the Civil Rights Act. The legislative maneuver failed by a 76-22 vote, with Biden joining Rudman, and then-senators William Cohen (R., Maine) and Strom Thurmond (R., S.C.), to eliminate the office.

The Grassley amendment creating the office subsequently passed by a voice vote.

The Biden campaign acknowledged his vote in favor of Rudman's point of order, telling the Washington Free Beacon that Biden "voted for a point of order on an amendment" that would have established the Office of Senate Fair Employment Practices.

Biden has leaned on his legislative record as he has denied Reade's allegations of sexual assault. In a Friday statement addressing the accusation, the former vice president invoked the Violence Against Women Act, which he cosponsored in 1994, as evidence of his belief "that women should be heard." His campaign has pointed to his sponsorship of the legislation to paint him as a  "champion for women." His support for Rudman's point of order may complicate that talking point.

Women's groups welcomed the creation of the Office of Senate Fair Employment Practices at the time. Jean B. Dugan, the chairwoman of the Capitol Hill Women's Political Caucus, told the New York Times that the new office would help give female staffers "recourse" if they are victimized by an elected official. "We are still being treated differently than other Americans but at least now there will be a better system in place and some outside recourse," Dugan said.

Biden's vote to block the creation of the office came less than two years before Reade alleges he sexually assaulted her and just weeks after Anita Hill appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Biden chaired at the time. Biden faced scrutiny in the aftermath of the hearings for refusing to adopt a sexual harassment policy statement drafted by the Capitol Hill Women's Political Caucus in 1991, though he implemented the policy for Senate Judiciary Committee staff, according to the Associated Press.

Biden did not explain his vote during the vigorous debate surrounding the passage of the Grassley amendment, the Congressional Record shows. Because it passed by voice vote, Biden's final position is unclear. He, along with others who opposed the creation of the Office of Fair Employment Practices—including Rudman, Cohen, and, Thurmond—voted in favor of the larger legislative package, the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which passed the Senate by an overwhelming margin.

The Office of Senate Fair Employment Practices was replaced by the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights in 1995, but Grassley's 1991 amendment serves as the legislative backbone for the current office.

The day after the point of order failed, Rudman launched a second attempt to derail the creation of the office by introducing an amendment that required senators to pay settlements out of their own pockets. When Grassley and his allies attempted to table the amendment, Biden again voted with Rudman. That amendment survived the tabling motion in a 75-22 vote and was later adopted by voice vote. Biden also voted against an amendment to the Civil Rights Act that would have allowed Senate staffers to sue for damages in a jury trial. The measure failed 54-42.

The Biden campaign did not respond to additional requests for comment.