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 RyanDemocrat Katie Porter unseats GOP's Mimi Walters Amazon fleeced New York, Virginia with HQ2 picks The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by T-Mobile — House, Senate leaders named as Pelosi lobbies for support to be Speaker MORE (R-Wis.) said in a statement.

House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiDem lawmaker: 'There's plenty of competent females' that can be Speaker instead of Pelosi Marcia Fudge under spotlight as Pelosi Speaker fight heats up Election Countdown: Florida Senate race heads to hand recount | Dem flips Maine House seat | New 2020 trend - the 'friend-raiser' | Ad war intensifies in Mississippi runoff | Blue wave batters California GOP 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 HarperMississippi New Members 2019 GOP lawmakers urge improvements to cyber vulnerabilities resource Bipartisan leaders of House panel press drug companies on opioid crisis MORE (R-Miss.) and ranking member Robert Brady (D-Pa.) and Reps. Jackie SpeierKaren (Jackie) Lorraine Jacqueline SpeierFemale House Dems urge Senate to delay Kavanaugh testimony for FBI investigation Election Countdown: Kavanaugh allegations put GOP in tough spot | Republicans start to pull plug on candidates | Dems get early start in Iowa | O'Rourke defends Cruz after protesters interrupt dinner | Why Biden is the Democrat GOP most fears Dems see Kavanaugh saga as playing to their advantage MORE (D-Calif.), Barbara ComstockBarbara Jean ComstockVirginia New Members 2019 Defeated Republicans mocked by Trump fire back at president GOP lawmaker defends Mia Love from Trump attacks: 'I was disgusted when I heard it' MORE (R-Va.) and Bradley ByrneBradley Roberts ByrneOn The Money: Trump to seek new round of tax cuts after midterms | Mnuchin meets with Saudi crown prince | Trump threatens to cut foreign aid over caravan GOP lawmaker proposes legislative maneuver to fund Trump's border wall Five GOP lawmakers mulling bid to lead conservative caucus MORE (R-Ala.), as well as House Ethics Committee Chairwoman Susan BrooksSusan Wiant BrooksHere's how politicians celebrated Halloween House conservatives want ethics probe into Dems' handling of Kavanaugh allegations Women poised to take charge in Dem majority MORE (R-Ind.) and ranking member Ted DeutchTheodore (Ted) Eliot Deutch3 ways House Dems can fight climate change when sweeping policy is off the table Florida Dem rep: Scott is 'spinning conspiracy theories' With Democrats controlling the House, a bipartisan climate solution is possible 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 ConyersGOP approves rule for Don Young Michigan New Members 2019 Historic class storms Capitol 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 BartonTexas New Members 2019 Dem wins leave behind a more conservative GOP conference Should internet platforms censor too much or too little? 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 FarentholdTexas New Members 2019 Former aides alleging sexual harassment on Capitol Hill urge congressional action AP Analysis: 25 state lawmakers running in 2018 have been accused of sexual misconduct MORE (R-Texas) and Ruben KihuenRuben Jesus KihuenNevada New Members 2019 Dem Susie Lee defeats Danny Tarkanian to retain Nevada House seat Horsford returns to House after winning Nevada race MORE (D-Nev.).

Former Sen. Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenMinnesota New Members 2019 Meet the lawyer Democrats call when it's recount time Gillibrand sidesteps question on possible Clinton 2020 run 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.