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Lawmakers unveil landmark overhaul of sexual harassment policies

Lawmakers unveil landmark overhaul of sexual harassment policies
© Greg Nash

Lawmakers in the House unveiled landmark legislation on Thursday that would overhaul Capitol Hill’s system for reporting sexual harassment and end the practice of taxpayer-funded settlements for cases involving members of Congress.

The bipartisan measure aims to provide staffers with additional resources and rights when filing a complaint, streamline the dispute resolution and reporting process, and enhance transparency when it comes to harassment settlements.

The introduction of the bill comes after a string of misconduct allegations against members of Congress in recent months, which resulted in six lawmakers announcing their departures from office.

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“We believe the proposed comprehensive reforms will pave the way for a safer and more productive congressional workplace,” the lawmakers involved in crafting the legislation said in a joint statement.

The House Administration Committee is expected to advance the legislation in the coming days, with easy passage on the floor likely to follow shortly after.

“No staffer or Member should ever feel unsafe in public service, and this bill will help make that a reality,” Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanCruz hires Trump campaign press aide as communications director Bottom line Ex-Trump chief of staff Priebus mulling Wisconsin governor bid MORE (R-Wis.) said in a statement.

House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiHouse Democrats pass sweeping .9T COVID-19 relief bill with minimum wage hike Budget Committee chair pledges to raise minimum wage: 'Hold me to it' Capitol review to recommend adding more fencing, 1,000 officers: report MORE (D-Calif.) also expressed support for the bill. She added that lawmakers will "continue to work with" the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on enhancing workplace protections beyond Capitol Hill in the private sector.

"As Members of Congress, we have a responsibility to build on this progress to ensure that every person in every workplace has full protections against harassment and discrimination," Pelosi said.

The bill is a comprehensive overhaul of a 1995 law known as the Congressional Accountability Act and was developed during months of negotiations. The House and Senate both adopted policies late last year to require annual sexual harassment awareness training for members and staff, but lawmakers said more significant reforms were needed.

The key lawmakers involved in writing the bill were House Administration Committee Chairman Gregg HarperGregory (Gregg) Livingston HarperCongress sends bill overhauling sexual harassment policy to Trump's desk Dems cry foul in undecided N.C. race Mississippi New Members 2019 MORE (R-Miss.) and ranking member Robert Brady (D-Pa.) and Reps. Jackie SpeierKaren (Jackie) Lorraine Jacqueline SpeierHillicon Valley: Google lifting ban on political ads | DHS taking steps on cybersecurity | Controversy over TV 'misinformation rumor mills' House Democrats urge Biden to make his pick for acting FCC chair permanent Lawmakers clash over gun prohibition in Natural Resources Committee room MORE (D-Calif.), Barbara ComstockBarbara Jean ComstockFormer GOP lawmaker says party should denounce Marjorie Taylor Greene Former GOP congresswoman calls on Republicans to back impeachment 22 retired GOP members of Congress call for Trump's impeachment MORE (R-Va.) and 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.), as well as House Ethics Committee Chairwoman Susan BrooksSusan Wiant BrooksHere are the three GOP lawmakers who voted for the Equality Act Bottom line House Republicans who didn't sign onto the Texas lawsuit MORE (R-Ind.) and ranking member Ted DeutchTheodore (Ted) Eliot DeutchThree years later, father of Parkland shooting victim calls for meaningful school safety reform LIVE COVERAGE: House debates removing Greene from committees Top House Republican suggests Ethics panel should review Greene committee assignments MORE (D-Fla.).

Under the current system for reporting harassment through the Office of Compliance, staffers must go through months of mediation and counseling with the employing office before filing a complaint. If they choose to go forward, they can either file it in court or seek an administrative hearing that may lead to a settlement.

Settlements have been issued from a special fund operated by the Treasury Department.

Among other provisions, the bill would provide staffers with access to an advocate providing legal advice and representation in proceedings before the Office of Compliance and House Ethics Committee, allow accusers to work remotely or request paid leave without fear of retribution and ensure every House office has an anti-harassment policy.

The measure would also eliminate the mandatory counseling and mediation provisions to shorten the process.

Lawmakers accused of sexual harassment who agree to a settlement would have to repay the Treasury within 90 days, even if they leave office. Claims would be automatically referred to the House Ethics Committee when a settlement is reached against a member.

Over the last few months, the House Administration Committee has requested details of settlements from the Office of Compliance to determine how much taxpayer funds were spent on workplace settlements. Close to $200,000 has been provided by the Treasury fund in the last 15 years to cover settlements related to sexual harassment.
 
As a way to enhance transparency, the legislation would require the Office of Compliance to publish online reports every six months detailing employing offices involved in settlements; the amount; and whether a lawmaker involved in a settlement has personally repaid the Treasury.
 
The legislation would further clarify that lawmakers cannot use their office budgets to pay for settlements, a direct response to the case of former Rep. John ConyersJohn James ConyersObama says reparations 'justified' House subcommittee debates reparations bill for Black Americans House subpanel to hold hearing on reparations for Black Americans MORE Jr. (D-Mich.).

Conyers resigned last year following a report by BuzzFeed that he settled a sexual harassment claim from a former staff using funds from his office budget.

Four other House members have either resigned or announced plans not to seek reelection related to their behavior toward women: Reps. Joe BartonJoe Linus BartonRep. Ron Wright dies after contracting COVID-19 Biden's gain is Democratic baseball's loss with Cedric Richmond Bottom line MORE (R-Texas), Trent FranksHarold (Trent) Trent FranksArizona New Members 2019 Cook shifts 8 House races toward Dems Freedom Caucus members see openings in leadership MORE (R-Ariz.), Blake FarentholdRandolph (Blake) Blake FarentholdThe biggest political upsets of the decade Members spar over sexual harassment training deadline Female Dems see double standard in Klobuchar accusations MORE (R-Texas) and Ruben KihuenRuben Jesus KihuenRep. Steven Horsford wins Democratic House primary in Nevada Members spar over sexual harassment training deadline Nevada Dem sanctioned for sexual misconduct announces city council bid MORE (D-Nev.).

Former Sen. Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenHarrison seen as front-runner to take over DNC at crucial moment The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Trump, Biden clash over transition holdup, pandemic plans The Hill's Morning Report - Fearing defeat, Trump claims 'illegal' ballots MORE (D-Minn.) also resigned after women accused him of forcibly kissing and inappropriately touching them.

Franks acknowledged that he had inappropriately discussed surrogacy with female staffers. The Associated Press reported that he offered one staffer $5 million if she carried his baby.

Farenthold had previously settled a sexual harassment claim from a former female aide for $84,000 in 2014. He has since pledged to take out a personal loan to pay back taxpayers, but his office said he is holding off until Congress takes action on reforming its sexual harassment policies.

Updated: 4:55 p.m.