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Lawmakers unveil landmark overhaul of sexual harassment policies

Lawmakers unveil landmark overhaul of sexual harassment policies
© Greg Nash

Lawmakers in the House unveiled landmark legislation on Thursday that would overhaul Capitol Hill’s system for reporting sexual harassment and end the practice of taxpayer-funded settlements for cases involving members of Congress.

The bipartisan measure aims to provide staffers with additional resources and rights when filing a complaint, streamline the dispute resolution and reporting process, and enhance transparency when it comes to harassment settlements.

The introduction of the bill comes after a string of misconduct allegations against members of Congress in recent months, which resulted in six lawmakers announcing their departures from office.

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“We believe the proposed comprehensive reforms will pave the way for a safer and more productive congressional workplace,” the lawmakers involved in crafting the legislation said in a joint statement.

The House Administration Committee is expected to advance the legislation in the coming days, with easy passage on the floor likely to follow shortly after.

“No staffer or Member should ever feel unsafe in public service, and this bill will help make that a reality,” Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanRepublicans are avoiding gun talks as election looms The Hill's 12:30 Report Flake to try to force vote on DACA stopgap plan MORE (R-Wis.) said in a statement.

House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiLawmakers feel pressure on guns Former Pelosi challenger: I have no 'interest in running for leadership again' Congress punts fight over Dreamers to March MORE (D-Calif.) also expressed support for the bill. She added that lawmakers will "continue to work with" the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on enhancing workplace protections beyond Capitol Hill in the private sector.

"As Members of Congress, we have a responsibility to build on this progress to ensure that every person in every workplace has full protections against harassment and discrimination," Pelosi said.

The bill is a comprehensive overhaul of a 1995 law known as the Congressional Accountability Act and was developed during months of negotiations. The House and Senate both adopted policies late last year to require annual sexual harassment awareness training for members and staff, but lawmakers said more significant reforms were needed.

The key lawmakers involved in writing the bill were House Administration Committee Chairman Gregg HarperGregory (Gregg) Livingston HarperHouse passes landmark bill to overhaul sexual harassment policy on Capitol Hill House committee leaders call for probe of sexual abuse in sports Overnight Cybersecurity: House Intel Dems draft memo countering GOP claims | Hackers release purported Olympic documents | Lawmakers demand answers on computer chip flaws MORE (R-Miss.) and ranking member Robert Brady (D-Pa.) and Reps. Jackie SpeierKaren (Jackie) Lorraine Jacqueline SpeierWhy the US should lead on protecting Rohingya Muslims Speier: Trump's view on harassment 'beyond rehabilitation' We'll take the military parade, spare the side of moral outrage MORE (D-Calif.), Barbara ComstockBarbara Jean ComstockProgressive group targets GOP moderates on immigration Lawmakers eye new programs to boost tech workforce Anti-Semitic post prompts Virginia Republicans to split with controversial GOP figure: report MORE (R-Va.) and Bradley ByrneBradley Roberts ByrneRight revolts on budget deal House passes landmark bill to overhaul sexual harassment policy on Capitol Hill Democrat forces vote over GOP lawmaker's poster on House floor MORE (R-Ala.), as well as House Ethics Committee Chairwoman Susan BrooksSusan Wiant BrooksNo criminal activity suspected in train accident Female GOP House members to wear red, white and blue to State of the Union House passes sexual abuse reporting bill after Nassar sentencing MORE (R-Ind.) and ranking member Ted DeutchTheodore (Ted) Eliot DeutchLawmakers feel pressure on guns Gingrich says arming teachers only long-term solution to school shootings Florida Dem: The ‘world has heard’ high school shooting survivors MORE (D-Fla.).

Under the current system for reporting harassment through the Office of Compliance, staffers must go through months of mediation and counseling with the employing office before filing a complaint. If they choose to go forward, they can either file it in court or seek an administrative hearing that may lead to a settlement.

Settlements have been issued from a special fund operated by the Treasury Department.

Among other provisions, the bill would provide staffers with access to an advocate providing legal advice and representation in proceedings before the Office of Compliance and House Ethics Committee, allow accusers to work remotely or request paid leave without fear of retribution and ensure every House office has an anti-harassment policy.

The measure would also eliminate the mandatory counseling and mediation provisions to shorten the process.

Lawmakers accused of sexual harassment who agree to a settlement would have to repay the Treasury within 90 days, even if they leave office. Claims would be automatically referred to the House Ethics Committee when a settlement is reached against a member.

Over the last few months, the House Administration Committee has requested details of settlements from the Office of Compliance to determine how much taxpayer funds were spent on workplace settlements. Close to $200,000 has been provided by the Treasury fund in the last 15 years to cover settlements related to sexual harassment.
 
As a way to enhance transparency, the legislation would require the Office of Compliance to publish online reports every six months detailing employing offices involved in settlements; the amount; and whether a lawmaker involved in a settlement has personally repaid the Treasury.
 
The legislation would further clarify that lawmakers cannot use their office budgets to pay for settlements, a direct response to the case of former Rep. John ConyersJohn James ConyersSchatz's ignorance of our Anglo-American legal heritage illustrates problem with government Dem consultant resigns in face of sexual misconduct allegation Tillerson announces mandatory sexual harassment training for State Dept. MORE Jr. (D-Mich.).

Conyers resigned last year following a report by BuzzFeed that he settled a sexual harassment claim from a former staff using funds from his office budget.

Four other House members have either resigned or announced plans not to seek reelection related to their behavior toward women: Reps. Joe BartonJoe Linus BartonBoth sides of immigration fight unhappy with Senate debate Speculation swirls about Kevin McCarthy’s future Lawmakers unveil landmark overhaul of sexual harassment policies MORE (R-Texas), Trent FranksHarold (Trent) Trent FranksReal-time data insights have become a powerful political tool Tillerson announces mandatory sexual harassment training for State Dept. Dems blast RNC over Steve Wynn sexual misconduct claims: 'This is the party of Donald Trump' MORE (R-Ariz.), Blake FarentholdRandolph (Blake) Blake FarentholdOvernight Energy: Dems ask Pruitt to justify first-class travel | Obama EPA chief says reg rollback won't stand | Ex-adviser expects Trump to eventually rejoin Paris accord Overnight Regulation: Trump to take steps to ban bump stocks | Trump eases rules on insurance sold outside of ObamaCare | FCC to officially rescind net neutrality Thursday | Obama EPA chief: Reg rollback won't stand GOP lawmakers: Obama admin ‘hastily’ wrote lead ammunition ban MORE (R-Texas) and Ruben KihuenRuben Jesus Kihuen BernalFormer Dem congressman jumps into race for Kihuen seat Dems eye GOP rep's seat after sexual harassment allegations Abortion rights leader gears up for 2018 fights MORE (D-Nev.).

Former Sen. Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenShould the Rob Porter outcome set the standard? Grassley, Dems step up battle over judicial nominees Sen. Gillibrand, eyeing 2020 bid, rankles some Democrats MORE (D-Minn.) also resigned after women accused him of forcibly kissing and inappropriately touching them.

Franks acknowledged that he had inappropriately discussed surrogacy with female staffers. The Associated Press reported that he offered one staffer $5 million if she carried his baby.

Farenthold had previously settled a sexual harassment claim from a former female aide for $84,000 in 2014. He has since pledged to take out a personal loan to pay back taxpayers, but his office said he is holding off until Congress takes action on reforming its sexual harassment policies.

Updated: 4:55 p.m.