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Free tampons could soon be in bathrooms across the Capitol

‘It’s time for the seat of our nation’s democracy to take the lead in providing this basic necessity,’ Rep. Grace Meng says

Rep. Grace Meng, pictured here in 2019, has championed better access to menstrual products in the Capitol complex.
Rep. Grace Meng, pictured here in 2019, has championed better access to menstrual products in the Capitol complex. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

They may still call them “menstrual hygiene products,” but lawmakers are starting to get comfortable with the idea of stocking free tampons and pads on Capitol Hill.

If House appropriators get their way, period supplies will soon be found far and wide across their workplace, available “at no cost to all those who use restroom facilities throughout the Capitol complex.”

The Architect of the Capitol would purchase the supplies in bulk and distribute them free of charge, according to a proposed directive included with the Legislative Branch spending bill for the upcoming fiscal year. The bill cleared an early hurdle Wednesday, when the House Appropriations Committee approved it along party lines.

“It’s time for the seat of our nation’s democracy to take the lead in providing this basic necessity,” said Rep. Grace Meng, who championed the provision. 

While lawmakers who work in the Capitol complex can easily afford to buy hygiene products, the same may not be true for interns and staff. And talking openly about menstruation reverses centuries of tradition for lawmakers in Congress, who were exclusively men until the first woman arrived in 1917. 

“Nobody should ever be forced to put their health in jeopardy and suffer embarrassment and stigmas because they’re unable to afford menstrual products,” said Meng, a New York Democrat.

The current push to appropriate money for period products comes after a few banner years for the topic on the Hill. First, Meng and others urged the House Administration Committee to ensure that lawmakers could use their personal office funds to buy such products from the House’s internal supply store.

Then, the Architect of the Capitol launched a pilot program to distribute free menstrual supplies in House office building bathrooms.

“The work was just completed,” said Architect of the Capitol spokeswoman Christine Leonard, describing the pilot program. “Even if there is a dispenser that previously needed a coin, all machines should now dispense for free.”

Meanwhile, women around the country have reported seeing a tampon shortage in recent months due to supply chain problems, an issue that could become political fodder in an election year.

Tampons were just one small component of the sprawling Legislative Branch spending bill that advanced Wednesday. Some of the provisions aim to address working conditions in the complex for lawmakers’ staff, who won the right to unionize this spring.

Union elections will be supervised and certified by the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights, and appropriators proposed an extra $500,000 to help that office prepare for a potential onslaught.

Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., tried to strike that extra half-million Wednesday, offering an amendment that Democrats shot down.

“I think that unionization of the House of Representatives is really impractical, and I think it could really place a barrier between our constituents and the people who they sent here to serve,” said Herrera Beutler, who serves as ranking member of the Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee.

The bill also includes nearly two dozen recommendations that originated in the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, aimed at improving how the institution works.

Among them is $10 million for the House Modernization Initiatives Account, an $8 million hike. Projects funded by that account could include creating a complete staff directory, something that does not currently exist, and a standardized format for legislative documents. The bill also would give the House clerk’s office $1.4 million to overhaul the lobbying disclosure system.

Disability rights advocates have pushed for better accessibility at the Capitol, such as more power-assisted doors and a designated drop-off zone for members of the public. Those projects should be a priority for the Architect of the Capitol, the committee report says.  

While last year brought a 21 percent jump for the office budgets that members use to pay their staff, this time the proposed bump is more modest, with a 4.6 percent increase to the Members’ Representational Allowance. But appropriators went along with a Modernization Committee recommendation to expand student loan repayment to include tuition assistance and professional development expenses.

Lawmakers decided to keep their own salaries frozen, as they have for more than a decade, but proposed an extra $4.1 million to raise pay for interns. The bill would also create a new House Intern Resource Office, which according to the committee report would provide training, gather demographic data and study the feasibility of creating a subsidized intern housing program to ease the pain of the steep Washington, D.C., market.

The inclusion of those recommendations from the so-called ModCom was celebrated by groups that aim to “fix Congress.” The proposed bill is “another giant step toward building a modern legislative branch,” said Daniel Schuman, policy director at Demand Progress. 

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