Sexual harassment bill gets new energy from Conyers settlement

Sexual harassment bill gets new energy from Conyers settlement
© Camille Fine

The revelations that taxpayer money was used for a settlement to resolve sexual harassment allegations involving Rep. John ConyersJohn James ConyersThe faith community can help pass a reparations bill California comes to terms with the costs and consequences of slavery Democrats debate timing and wisdom of reparations vote MORE Jr. (D-Mich.) has put new momentum behind legislation to make such settlements public, but the bill still faces obstacles to its passage. 

Debates remain over whether to make the taxpayer-funded settlements public, if victims bound by confidentiality agreements can speak to ethics investigators, and if complaints of harassment should be made directly to the ethics committees.

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The Senate adopted a resolution earlier this month requiring sexual harassment awareness training for its members and staff, while the House plans to follow suit on Wednesday. But overhauling the complex system available to staff to report complaints will require more time than the quick votes in the House and Senate to mandate the training on Capitol Hill.

Passing such measures won’t require the same kind of bicameral compromise needed to reform the reporting process established more than two decades ago by the Congressional Accountability Act. 

Moving bipartisan resolutions that change only one chamber’s rules and ethics guidelines are the easy part.

“Anytime we send something over to the Senate, it’s an iffy proposition,” said Rep. Bradley ByrneBradley Roberts ByrneTrump's Slovenia Ambassador Lynda Blanchard jumps into Alabama Senate race Mo Brooks expresses interest in running for Shelby's Senate seat Ex-Rep. Mike Conaway, former aide launch lobbying firm MORE (R-Ala.), who previously practiced employment law and is working with other lawmakers to overhaul Capitol Hill harassment policies. 

Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanPaul Ryan researched narcissistic personality disorder after Trump win: book Paul Ryan says it's 'really clear' Biden won election: 'It was not rigged. It was not stolen' Democrats fret over Trump-district retirements ahead of midterms MORE (R-Wis.) directed the House Administration Committee to review congressional workplace harassment and discrimination policies. As part of that effort, the committee plans to hold a hearing next Thursday to discuss how to reform the harassment reporting and settlement process run through the Office of Compliance. 

Legislation authored by Rep. Jackie SpeierKaren (Jackie) Lorraine Jacqueline SpeierJimmy and Rosalynn Carter celebrate 75th anniversary, longest-married presidential couple Military braces for sea change on justice reform House panel plans mid-July consideration of military justice overhaul MORE (D-Calif.) and Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandHochul tells Facebook to 'clean up the act' on abortion misinformation after Texas law Democratic senators request probe into Amazon's treatment of pregnant employees The FBI comes up empty-handed in its search for a Jan. 6 plot MORE (D-N.Y.) would require the Office of Compliance to publish a report on its website starting this year identifying each employing office involved in cases with settlements, the monetary amount and the number of allegations made against the office. The reports could not disclose the identities of people who made the allegations.

Lawmakers accused of harassment would also have to reimburse the taxpayers for settlements, which are paid out of a special fund operated by the Treasury Department.

The bill would also waive what’s currently a months-long mandatory counseling and mediation process with the employing office and establish a victims’ counsel to provide representation to complainants.

Neither Ryan nor Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump seeking challenger to McConnell as Senate GOP leader: report Budget chairman: Debt ceiling fight 'a ridiculous position to be in' Buckle up for more Trump, courtesy of the Democratic Party MORE (R-Ky.) have specifically committed to votes on the Speier–Gillibrand bill or any similar measure to overhaul the Office of Compliance process to date.

Six Republicans are currently cosponsors of the House version of the Speier–Gillibrand legislation, but so far none have signed on to the Senate counterpart.  

House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiBiden pushes back at Democrats on taxes Yarmuth and Clyburn suggest .5T package may be slimmed Of partisan fights and follies, or why Democrats should follow Manchin, not Sanders MORE (D-Calif.) supports the legislation, but appeared skeptical about retroactively making all taxpayer-funded settlements public.

When asked on NBC’s “Meet the Press” if she supported the idea, Pelosi said, “Not necessarily. Sometimes the victim does not want that to happen.”

Other lawmakers, meanwhile, have pushed for more transparency about settlements after BuzzFeed reported last week that a former Conyers staffer who accused him of sexual harassment was paid a more than $27,000 settlement in exchange for a confidentiality agreement. 

Instead of coming out of the Treasury fund for such payments, the settlement was paid from Conyers’s office over the course of three months. The former staffer was listed as a “temporary employee” for the payments, even though she did not do any actual work during that period. 

“If a member of Congress is going to settle a sexual harassment claim, taxpayers should have the right to know about it since they’re the ones footing the bill,” said Rep. Cheri BustosCheryl (Cheri) Lea BustosOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by the American Petroleum Institute — A warning shot on Biden's .5T plan The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden continues to grapple with Afghanistan chaos Democrats fret over Trump-district retirements ahead of midterms MORE (D-Ill.).

Rep. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisPresident Biden's vaccination plan is Constitutional – and necessary Faith leaders call on Congress to lead the response to a global pandemic Democrats lean into vaccine mandates ahead of midterms MORE (R-Fla.) intends to introduce legislation this week similar to the Speier–Gillibrand proposal that would make all taxpayer-funded settlements public, prohibit the use of tax dollars to settle sexual harassment claims against a lawmaker or congressional staffer and require lawmakers named in a settlement to reimburse taxpayers. 

One provision in the DeSantis measure to prohibit lawmakers from using their office budgets to conceal settlement payments would be dubbed the “Conyers rule.”

A DeSantis spokeswoman said that the bill, which is still being finalized, is already drawing bipartisan interest. 

Then there’s the question of whether people who have been paid settlements in exchange for their silence can speak with ethics investigators like those who are now reviewing the allegations against Conyers. The House Ethics Committee declined to comment.

Pelosi called for clarifying that victims bound by nondisclosure agreements should be able to speak with the House Ethics Committee.

“We’re saying we think the Ethics Committee can, but if you don’t agree, we’ll pass a law that says the Ethics Committee can, a resolution in Congress that the Ethics Committee can,” Pelosi said on “Meet the Press.”

Rep. Diana DeGetteDiana Louise DeGetteOvernight Health Care: WH says more than one million vaccine doses administered in 24 hours | Texas faces tipping point as COVID-19 spreads | House Democrats press insulin manufacturers for lower prices House members to urge FDA to remove in-person requirement for abortion medication House Democrats press insulin manufacturers for lower prices MORE (D-Colo.), meanwhile, called for automatically reporting lawmakers accused of harassment or discrimination through the Office of Compliance process to the House Ethics Committee.

“The Office of Compliance has to be linked to the Ethics Committee. Right now, the Office of Compliance could find that a member of Congress engaged in any kind of discrimination, including harassment, and that would not have to be reported to the Ethics Committee. So there needs to be a linkage there,” DeGette told MSNBC’s Katy Tur on Monday.