House votes to mandate sexual harassment training for members and staff
The House on Wednesday voted to require annual sexual harassment awareness training for all members and staff amid a push to reform the culture on Capitol Hill.
A resolution authored by Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) passed easily by voice vote, though its passage will not be the hard part for lawmakers seeking to reform the policies to protect Capitol Hill employees from sexual harassment.
Comstock’s measure requires members and staff to undergo anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training during each session of Congress. Interns and fellows would also have to take the training.
Members and staff will have to complete the training no later than 180 days after the second session of the current Congress begins in January.
“Today’s bill is an important step in the right direction. But let’s not fool ourselves. It is a baby step,” said Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), who has introduced legislation to overhaul Capitol Hill’s workplace policies.
The House vote follows a move by the Senate earlier this month to require the training for its members and staff.
Until now, Capitol Hill employees were not required to undergo training to recognize and combat sexual harassment. Some offices voluntarily made their workers receive the training, but it was not a universal policy.
Executive branch workers, meanwhile, have long had to take sexual harassment awareness training.
Requiring the training marks a victory for Speier, who pushed for it back in 2014.
Speier successfully added an amendment to an annual legislative branch appropriations bill three years ago to require sexual harassment awareness training for members and staff. But her amendment was ultimately not included in the final version that became law.
At the time, then-Rep. Vance McAllister (R-La.) had been found to be having an extramarital affair with a staffer.
Some female lawmakers have shared their own experiences with sexual harassment in recent weeks.
Speier described a chief of staff forcibly kissing her while she was a congressional aide in the 1970s; Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) told The Associated Press of male colleagues who propositioned or inappropriately touched her; and Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) said on MSNBC that ex-Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.) once tried to pin her against an elevator and kiss her.
Still more stories of sexual harassment were shared during Wednesday’s House floor debate.
Comstock, who worked as a congressional staffer for former Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) in the 1990s, shared an example of former Rep. Charlie Wilson (D-Texas) bragging about hiring attractive women.
“There were members like good-time Charlie Wilson, who was, you know, hardy-har-har, openly bragged about hiring staff based on their looks and breast size,” Comstock said.
And Speier revealed that a woman had confided to her that a male lawmaker came up behind her, grinded his body against hers and stuck his tongue in her ear during a late-night House floor debate.
“That happened on this floor with members — probably — standing around,” Speier said.
Speier and other lawmakers are calling for additional reforms beyond requiring training to educate Capitol Hill employees about sexual harassment.
A bill introduced by Speier and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) would overhaul the 1995 law that created the Office of Compliance, which provides staff with a system for reporting harassment complaints.
Their proposal would, among other provisions, waive what’s currently a mandatory months-long process of counseling and mediation with the employing office.
Under the Office of Compliance process, cases resulting in settlements are paid out from a special fund operated by the Treasury Department.
The Office of Compliance released data showing that more than $17 million in settlements has been paid out since the late 1990s. The settlements includes cases regarding workplace violations beyond sexual harassment, like racial discrimination.
Yet it’s possible that taxpayers have paid more money for settlements beyond the $17 million figure provided by the Office of Compliance.
BuzzFeed reported last week that Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) agreed to a more than $27,000 settlement with a former staffer who alleged she was fired because she wouldn’t succumb to his sexual advances. Conyers has denied any wrongdoing and said a settlement was reached to avoid protracted litigation.
The taxpayer-funded settlement payments were made from Conyers’s congressional office in the form of severance payments.
Another former female staffer told the Detroit News that Conyers also sexually harassed her when she worked for him.
Conyers, the longest-serving member of the House, has since stepped aside from his post as the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee amid an ethics investigation of the sexual harassment allegations. But he has so far resisted pressure from fellow Democrats to resign.
The revelations about Conyers’s settlement has spurred lawmakers of both parties to call for banning taxpayer-funded settlements.
The Speier–Gillibrand legislation would require lawmakers accused of harassment to reimburse the Treasury for settlements. The Office of Compliance would also have to publish the names of employing offices involved in cases with settlements on its website.
Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.) introduced a bill this week that would go further by prohibiting taxpayer funds from being used for settlements in cases where a lawmaker is accused of sexual harassment.
Marino’s proposal would also require the Ethics Committees in the House and Senate to consider expulsion of a lawmaker who engaged in sexual harassment.
Another similar bill unveiled Wednesday by Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) would make all taxpayer-funded settlements public and ban the use of taxpayer money to pay for settling sexual harassment claims involving a member of Congress.
The House Administration Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing next Thursday about the harassment reporting and settlement process.
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