House passes landmark bill to overhaul sexual harassment policy on Capitol Hill
The House passed landmark legislation on Tuesday to overhaul Capitol Hill’s sexual harassment policies following a string of recent revelations that multiple lawmakers engaged in misconduct.
Passage of the bill by a voice vote means it now heads to the Senate, where its future is uncertain but could be helped by momentum from the “Me Too” movement highlighting sexual harassment.
The legislation seeks to 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.
“Thanks to the ‘Me Too’ movement, the American public has made it clear that they have had enough. They expect Congress to lead and for once, we are,” said Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), an author of the legislation.
Members of Congress accused of sexual harassment would be personally on the hook for any settlement payments. 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.
The Office of Compliance, which handles the workplace dispute reporting process, would be required to publish reports online every six months detailing the settlement amounts and the employing offices involved.
“Taxpayers should not bail members of Congress out for misconduct,” said Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), who had introduced a bill last year that would ban taxpayer-funded settlements for harassment cases against lawmakers.
According to statistics released by the House Administration Committee, close to $200,000 has been provided by a special fund operated by the Treasury Department in the last two decades to cover settlements related to sexual harassment.
Yet those funds do not count settlements paid out by lawmakers’ personal offices, which would no longer be allowed under the legislation. Reports by BuzzFeed and The New York Times found that at least two members of Congress agreed to settle complaints of sexual harassment from former aides that were paid from their taxpayer-funded office budgets.
Former Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) resigned last year after BuzzFeed reported that a female former aide who accused him of sexual harassment received about $27,000 in installments from his office budget.
Similarly, Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.) decided not to run for reelection after The New York Times reported that his office paid out a settlement of an undisclosed amount to a former female aide who accused him of retaliating when she rebuffed his advances.
Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) removed Meehan from his post on the House Ethics Committee and urged him to pay back the cost of the settlement.
Another GOP lawmaker, Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas), has also come under scrutiny for an $84,000 settlement paid from the Treasury Department fund after a female former aide accused him of sexual harassment. Farenthold, who has since decided not to run for reelection, initially pledged to take out a personal loan to reimburse taxpayers.
But a spokeswoman confirmed to The Hill last month that at the advice of legal counsel, Farenthold is waiting to see what changes the House makes to Capitol Hill’s sexual harassment policies before repaying the cost of the settlement.
Lawmakers have moved the bill speedily through the House after introducing it less than three weeks ago.
So far the legislation has encountered little opposition. But government transparency advocates have criticized a provision that sidelines the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), an independent watchdog, in reviewing workplace complaints filed through the Office of Compliance process.
Complaints would only be referred to the House Ethics Committee for review; the OCE would not be able to investigate on its own. A spokeswoman for the House Administration Committee said limiting investigations to the Ethics Committee would streamline the review process.
But critics warn that the provision takes away a layer of accountability, given that the OCE was created to ensure that members of the Ethics Committee would hold their colleagues to ethics standards.
“One can only hope that this is not a case of the camel’s nose slipping under the tent signaling further efforts to undermine OCE’s role, while limited, in upholding strong ethical standards in the House of Representatives,” Issue One executive director Meredith McGehee said.
The OCE can investigate allegations against lawmakers but lacks subpoena or punishment power. It can make recommendations on whether to pursue a case further to the Ethics Committee, which then decides the next steps.
Reports produced by the OCE must be publicly released after a certain amount of time has passed unless the Ethics Committee opens its own probe. In that case, the OCE report would still be made public once the Ethics Committee’s investigation concludes.
Tuesday marks the second time in the last year that lawmakers have tried to curtail the powers of the OCE.
At the start of the new session of Congress in January 2017, House Republicans tried to weaken the OCE by putting it under the oversight of the House Ethics Committee. GOP lawmakers reversed course following an intense public backlash.
The House also adopted a resolution that requires each employing office in the lower chamber to adopt anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies, which will go into effect immediately without needing action by the Senate.
Updated at 6:26 p.m.