Harassment rules play into race for Speaker

Harassment rules play into race for Speaker
© Greg Nash

House lawmakers from both parties want any candidate running for Speaker to promise to push for an overhaul of Capitol Hill’s sexual harassment policies.

While there is no organized effort to demand that any Speaker hopeful make a pledge to such reforms, a number of House members told The Hill that a candidate’s stance on the issue will be one of the criteria they use to decide whether to back someone vying for the Speaker’s gavel.

Some items on their wish list, such as prohibiting the use of taxpayer dollars to settle sexual harassment claims, will likely find easy support with any Democrat or Republican seeking the top leadership job. But more contentious changes, including publicly revealing the names of lawmakers who have settled claims, may be a tougher ask, since the idea faces some resistance in both parties.

Still, the heightened attention on the issue — and the fact it could influence a leadership race — underscores the growing support for revamping Capitol Hill’s sexual harassment policies following the national “Me Too” movement.

“If the issue doesn’t come up, I might ask him or her, whoever [the candidate for Speaker] might be. It could be a factor,” said Rep. Roger WilliamsJohn (Roger) Roger WilliamsFive GOP lawmakers mulling bid to lead conservative caucus Lawmakers demand answers from Mnuchin on Trump tariffs Family connection is crucial to America's immigration system MORE (R-Texas). “It’s important to me that we send a message that it’s not acceptable.”

“Yes. Yes, yes, yes. That’s something I would certainly insist on,” said Rep. Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellSchumer: Trump should cancel meeting with Putin 5 takeaways from wild hearing with controversial FBI agent The Hill's 12:30 Report — Sponsored by Delta Air Lines — GOP spars with FBI agent at tense hearing MORE (D-Calif.).

The push for more transparency around using taxpayer dollars to resolve sexual harassment cases has found strong support among conservative hard-liners, who came to Congress promising fiscal responsibility and cuts to wasteful spending.

“There are a lot of things the Speaker has to change around here, and that would be one of them,” said Rep. Justin AmashJustin AmashGOP Rep. Amash slams Kavanaugh on government surveillance rulings House Freedom Caucus roiled by Trump's attacks on Mark Sanford Freedom Caucus to Trump: Lay off Sanford attacks MORE (R-Mich.), a member of the far-right House Freedom Caucus, which is considering running one of their own candidates for Speaker.

“My criteria has always been follow the rule of law and the constitution. And then after that, fiscal responsibility. So it all fits right together,” said Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), discussing whether someone’s support for sexual harassment reforms will influence his selection for the next Speaker.

The issue could even surface in some campaigns in the midterm elections. Tea Party insurgent Art Halvorson, who is running to replace retiring Rep. Bill ShusterWilliam (Bill) Franklin ShusterOvernight Defense: VA pick breezes through confirmation hearing | House votes to move on defense bill negotiations | Senate bill would set 'stringent' oversight on North Korea talks House passes bipartisan water infrastructure bill Stakeholder group urges Senate panel to fund Amtrak, Northeast Corridor MORE (R-Pa.), said that if he’s elected to Congress, he will not support someone for any leadership role unless they promise to release the names of all lawmakers who used taxpayer dollars to secretly settle sexual harassment claims.

He also called for any members running for a leadership post to agree to ban taxpayer-funded settlements.

“If we’re going to turn our country around, we have to drain the swamp — and that’s part of draining the swamp. That’s as perfect of an example that I can think of. That’s why we put it in there,” Halvorson said in a telephone interview.

“This is our opportunity to put a new Speaker in charge who has to meet a certain criteria.”

The House already passed landmark legislation in February that would streamline the process available to Capitol Hill staffers to report harassment, provide additional resources for people filing complaints and establish transparency requirements for taxpayer-funded settlements to resolve cases.

Under the legislation, members of Congress accused of sexual harassment would be personally on the hook for any settlement payments. And any lawmaker who agrees to a settlement would have to reimburse taxpayers within 90 days and would be barred from using any office funds to pay the costs.

But the bill, which came after a string of accusations of misconduct against lawmakers, has remained stalled in the Senate, where there have been concerns about making members of Congress personally liable for settlements.

There had been some discussions about attaching the measure to a massive spending bill in March, but the legislation was ultimately left out of the funding package.

Lead sponsors of the bill such as Rep. Jackie SpeierKaren (Jackie) Lorraine Jacqueline SpeierDems demand answers on Pentagon not recognizing Pride Month Overnight Defense: VA pick breezes through confirmation hearing | House votes to move on defense bill negotiations | Senate bill would set 'stringent' oversight on North Korea talks Overnight Defense: Defense spending bill amendments target hot-button issues | Space Force already facing hurdles | Senators voice 'deep' concerns at using military lawyers on immigration cases MORE (D-Calif.) are still hopeful that they can get the bill over the finish line before the end of the year.

But if that doesn’t happen, some members hope to use the upcoming Speaker’s race to further ratchet up pressure on congressional leaders to prioritize the issue, for example by agreeing to attach reforms to must-pass bills.

Swalwell said the next Speaker could take some steps to overhaul how Congress handles sexual harassment allegations by making changes to the rules package that members adopt in the beginning of every Congress in order to govern House operations.

The California Democrat wants to see an end to the use of taxpayer dollars for sexual harassment settlements and the unsealing of previous cases if the victim consents to the disclosure, among other changes.

“I think [any candidate] for Speaker should make it clear” where they stand on those issues, Swalwell said.

“I know where Leader Pelosi stands,” he added, “and I feel comfortable with her doing that.”

Rep. Ted DeutchTheodore (Ted) Eliot DeutchGOP congressional candidate tells Parkland father to stop 'exploiting' his daughter's death Senate harassment bill runs into opposition from House House Dems want to hire Parkland students for the summer MORE (D-Fla.) agreed that anyone who wants the most powerful job in the House should “absolutely” have to answer questions about which sexual harassment reforms they would push for if they were in charge — whether they are a Democrat or Republican.

Given that the House already passed a bill to improve how Congress responds to sexual harassment allegations, it seems that the likely candidates running for Speaker next year will be able to check that box if it’s a requirement for some members.

House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiTop Democrats request meeting with intel chief over sharing of classified info Overnight Defense: Fears rise over Trump-Putin summit | McCain presses Trump to hold Putin 'accountable' for hacking | Pentagon does damage control after NATO meet 'Our Cartoon President' takes on Mueller probe, NATO and Melania in second season MORE (D-Calif.), who is expected to make a bid for Speaker if Democrats take back control of the House, has been a vocal proponent of efforts to reform how Congress deals with sexual harassment.

And GOP leaders have also been promoting the anti-sexual harassment legislation, bringing it to a House floor earlier this year. Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanFive GOP lawmakers mulling bid to lead conservative caucus On The Money — Sponsored by Prudential — Trump walks back criticism of UK Brexit strategy | McConnell worries US in 'early stages' of trade war | US trade deficit with China hits new record Tampons sent to Dem who called for free feminine hygiene products in House MORE’s (R-Wis.) top lieutenant, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyElon Musk donated nearly K to Republican PAC, filings show Eric Holder: Calls to abolish ICE are 'a gift to Republicans' Jordan weathering political storm, but headwinds remain MORE (R-Calif.), is considered an early front-runner to replace him when he retires in January.

But asking congressional leaders to reveal the names of lawmakers who have settled harassment claims, a provision that was not included in the House-passed legislation, is a far more divisive idea and could be a tougher demand for any Speaker candidate.

There is concern in both parties that retroactively revealing the names of members could punish lawmakers who were unfairly accused but agreed to settle claims instead of engaging in a protracted legal battle.

Even lawmakers who support efforts to overhaul sexual harassment policies on Capitol Hill are wary of the idea.

“There’s a fine line between someone using this as a political weapon versus legitimate,” said Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Mich.).