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 RyanKenosha will be a good bellwether in 2020 At indoor rally, Pence says election runs through Wisconsin Juan Williams: Breaking down the debates MORE (R-Wis.) said in a statement.

House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPelosi: Trump Supreme Court pick 'threatens' Affordable Care Act Sunday shows preview: Lawmakers prepare for SCOTUS confirmation hearings before election Will Democrats attempt to pack the Supreme Court again? 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 SpeierOvernight Defense: House to vote on military justice bill spurred by Vanessa Guillén death | Biden courts veterans after Trump's military controversies House to vote on 'I Am Vanessa Guillén' bill Overnight Defense: Trump's battle with Pentagon poses risks in November | Lawmakers launch Fort Hood probe | Military members can't opt out of tax deferral MORE (D-Calif.), Barbara ComstockBarbara Jean ComstockLive coverage: House holds third day of public impeachment hearings Gun debate raises stakes in battle for Virginia legislature Progressives face steep odds in ousting incumbent Democrats MORE (R-Va.) and Bradley ByrneBradley Roberts ByrneBottom line Jerry Carl wins GOP Alabama runoff to replace Rep. Bradley Byrne Jeff Sessions loses comeback bid in Alabama runoff MORE (R-Ala.), as well as House Ethics Committee Chairwoman Susan BrooksSusan Wiant BrooksBipartisan lawmakers call for broadband expansion to eliminate inequities The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - GOP closes ranks to fill SCOTUS vacancy by November The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Trump, GOP allies prepare for SCOTUS nomination this week MORE (R-Ind.) and ranking member Ted DeutchTheodore (Ted) Eliot DeutchShakespeare Theatre Company goes virtual for 'Will on the Hill...or Won't They?' Florida Democrat introduces bill to recognize Puerto Rico statehood referendum Matt Gaetz, Roger Stone back far-right activist Laura Loomer in congressional bid 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 ConyersBiden's immigration plan has serious problems Tlaib wins Michigan Democratic primary Tlaib holds lead in early vote count against primary challenger 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 BartonLobbying world Bottom line Ex-Tea Party lawmakers turn heads on K Street 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 FrankenGOP Senate candidate says Trump, Republicans will surprise in Minnesota Peterson faces fight of his career in deep-red Minnesota district Getting tight — the psychology of cancel culture 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.