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 ConyersEXCLUSIVE: Trump on reparations: 'I don't see it happening' McConnell: Reparations aren't 'a good idea' This week: Democrats move funding bills as caps deal remains elusive 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 ByrneAlabama GOP senate candidate says 'homosexual activities' have ruined TV, country's moral core The Hill's Morning Report — Trump retreats on census citizenship question Alabama senator says Trump opposed to Sessions Senate bid MORE (R-Ala.), who previously practiced employment law and is working with other lawmakers to overhaul Capitol Hill harassment policies. 

Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanTrump quietly rolled back programs to detect, combat weapons of mass destruction: report Ocasio-Cortez top aide emerges as lightning rod amid Democratic feud Juan Williams: GOP in a panic over Mueller 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 SpeierSenators introduce legislation to boost cyber defense training in high school Here are the 95 Democrats who voted to support impeachment It's time for the left to advance a shared vision of national security: Start by passing the NDAA MORE (D-Calif.) and Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandThe Hill's Morning Report: Trump walks back from 'send her back' chants Biden, Harris set for second Democratic debate showdown Rand Paul accuses Jon Stewart of being 'part of left-wing mob' after criticism over 9/11 victim fund 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 McConnellThe Hill's Morning Report: Trump walks back from 'send her back' chants GOP rattled by Trump rally Third Kentucky Democrat announces challenge to McConnell 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 PelosiDHS chief to Pelosi: Emergency border funding 'has already had an impact' The Hill's Morning Report: Trump walks back from 'send her back' chants Trump faces new hit on deficit 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 BustosHouse Democrats' campaign arm raises over million in second quarter Lawmakers join Nats Park fundraiser for DC kids charity Democratic leaders seek balance amid liberal push to go big on immigration MORE (D-Ill.).

Rep. Ron DeSantisRonald Dion DeSantisTo win over Midwesterners, Democrats should rethink school choice stance DeSantis wants statue of civil rights activist to replace Confederate figure on Capitol Hill Florida couple wins right to plant vegetables in front yard after years-long legal battle 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 DeGetteHere are the 95 Democrats who voted to support impeachment Crucial for Congress to fund life-saving diabetes research Overnight Health Care — Sponsored by Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids — White House withdraws controversial rule to eliminate drug rebates | Grassley says deal on drug prices moving 'very soon' | Appeals court declines to halt Trump abortion referral ban 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.