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 RyanStudents arrested protesting gun violence outside Paul Ryan’s office Parkland father calls out Trump, McConnell, Ryan after Santa Fe shooting GOP revolts multiply against retiring Ryan MORE (R-Wis.) said in a statement.

House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiJuan Williams: Trump gives life to the left Tax law supporters rally for Republicans in tough races Democrats must vote for electable candidates to win big in November 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 HarperOvernight Health Care: Drug exec apologizes for large opioid shipments | Schumer vows to be 'relentless' in tying GOP to premium hikes | House panel advances VA reform bill Distributor executive apologizes for large opioid shipments Americans connect with government at the library – so fix the Federal Depository Library Program MORE (R-Miss.) and ranking member Robert Brady (D-Pa.) and Reps. Jackie SpeierKaren (Jackie) Lorraine Jacqueline SpeierOvernight Defense: Over 500 amendments proposed for defense bill | Measures address transgender troops, Yemen war | Trump taps acting VA chief as permanent secretary Defense bill amendment would protect open transgender military service Navy to stop announcing names of officials fired for misconduct: report MORE (D-Calif.), Barbara ComstockBarbara Jean ComstockTax law supporters rally for Republicans in tough races Congress — when considering women’s health, don’t forget about lung cancer GOP split on immigration is a crisis for Ryan’s team MORE (R-Va.) and Bradley ByrneBradley Roberts ByrneWith new a president, we have an opportunity to begin the process of re-establishing relations with Cuba Right revolts on budget deal House passes landmark bill to overhaul sexual harassment policy on Capitol Hill MORE (R-Ala.), as well as House Ethics Committee Chairwoman Susan BrooksSusan Wiant BrooksFarenthold says he won't repay K sexual harassment settlement House Ethics calls on Farenthold to pay back K taxpayer-funded harassment settlement Ethics Committee to expand campaign finance investigation of Tennessee Republican MORE (R-Ind.) and ranking member Ted DeutchTheodore (Ted) Eliot DeutchFarenthold says he won't repay K sexual harassment settlement Harassment rules play into race for Speaker Winter Olympians call for action on climate 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 ConyersConyers's son in danger of missing ballot in Michigan Eric Schneiderman and #MeToo pose challenges for both parties Even for TV 'royalty' Brokaw, 'MeToo' claim is legacy-killer 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 BartonGOP split on immigration is a crisis for Ryan’s team Leaders warn Republicans against forcing immigration vote Hillicon Valley: AT&T calls hiring Cohen a 'big mistake' | Wyden wants to block DHS nominee over Stingray surveillance | Amazon pressed on child privacy | One year anniversary of Trump cyber order MORE (R-Texas), Trent FranksHarold (Trent) Trent FranksEric Schneiderman and #MeToo pose challenges for both parties The Hill's 12:30 Report Sarah Sanders on Republican's 5-point win in Arizona: 'She's not Donald Trump' MORE (R-Ariz.), Blake FarentholdRandolph (Blake) Blake FarentholdFarenthold says he won't repay K sexual harassment settlement Farenthold lands new job in Texas Eric Schneiderman and #MeToo pose challenges for both parties MORE (R-Texas) and Ruben KihuenRuben Jesus Kihuen BernalHouse votes to advance Yucca Mountain nuclear waste project Overnight Energy: Interior sending officers to southern border | Dem AGs want EPA to halt plan restricting use of science | EPA documents show secrecy push Nevada Democrat accused of sexual harassment reconsiders retirement: report MORE (D-Nev.).

Former Sen. Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart Franken100 days after House passage, Gillibrand calls on Senate to act on sexual harassment reform Eric Schneiderman and #MeToo pose challenges for both parties Senate confirms Trump judicial pick over objections of home-state senator 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.