Senate approves new sexual harassment policy for Congress
The Senate cleared legislation on Thursday implementing a new policy for handling sexual harassment claims.
Senators passed the bill by voice vote roughly a day after the legislation was introduced. It will now be sent to the House, which passed its own legislation last year.
“We are currently reviewing the Senate bill, and discussing next steps,” said AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).
The bill, from Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), would reform the reporting process for victims of sexual harassment and would make members of Congress personally liable for any settlements.
The legislation would eliminate a 30-day counseling period, a 30-day mediation phase and a 30-day “cooling off” period currently required for victims of sexual harassment under the Congressional Accountability Act.
For a senator to be found personally liable under the new legislation, a hearing officer, judge or the Senate Ethics Committee would have to find that a member personally harassed someone.
It would also require members, including senators who leave office, to repay the Treasury for any settlements tied to harassment they committed. If a settlement isn’t repaid within 180 days, the legislation allows the federal government to target a senator’s compensation or finances.
Currently, sexual harassment settlements involving lawmakers are paid by using taxpayer funding from a little-known Treasury account.
The Washington Post reported in December that the Treasury Department has spent $174,000 on settling harassment-related claims over the last five years.
Pressure on the Senate to take action on sexual harassment has been building for months after several members of Congress resigned amid high-profile scandals.
The House passed its own legislation dealing with sexual harassment last year. Unlike in the House-passed legislation, under the Senate bill settlements stemming from harassment claims made against staffers would still be paid out of a Treasury account.
“Nonmembers would still be covered by their employer ― like every other employee in America is for their actions,” Blunt told reporters on Tuesday.
There are also early signs of concern that the Senate legislation would only hold members personally liable over harassment. Under the House bill, members would be personally liable for both harassment and discrimination.
The Senate bill also gives the Ethics Committee more oversight of claims, which could draw backlash from House Democrats or advocates who could be skeptical that senators will ultimately decide to punish their own colleagues.
The Senate bill also doubles of the amount of time a victim has to decide if they want to file a lawsuit. Under the House bill, they have 45 days from the time they approach the Office of Congressional Compliance; under the Senate bill, they have 90 days.
Blunt said Thursday that he hasn’t gotten feedback from House GOP leadership but predicted they wouldn’t need to formally go to conference to work out the differences between the House and Senate legislation.
“They knew what we were sending over,” he said, referring more broadly to House lawmakers. “I hope that we can work together and come to a speedy conclusion.”
–Updated at 3:06 p.m.
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