House sexual harassment overhaul sidelines ethics watchdog

House sexual harassment overhaul sidelines ethics watchdog
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Bipartisan legislation released earlier this week to overhaul Capitol Hill’s sexual harassment policies would prevent an independent ethics watchdog from reviewing complaints.

The bill, unveiled Thursday, contains a provision that would prevent the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) from initiating investigations of alleged harassment if a claim is filed with the updated reporting system.

Instead, harassment claims would have to be automatically referred to the House Ethics Committee for potential discipline, with no ability by OCE to review.


But government transparency groups like Issue One warn that the legislation undermines OCE and limits transparency.

The OCE was created in 2008 as an independent, nonpartisan entity to add a layer of accountability to the House ethics process. Then-Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOvernight Health Care: Biden: US to hit 200M vaccine target on Wednesday | House Dems to unveil drug pricing measure ahead of Biden package | FDA finds multiple failures at J&J plant House Dems to unveil drug pricing measure ahead of Biden package House Democrats eye passing DC statehood bill for second time MORE (D-Calif.) led the push to create the OCE as part of a congressional ethics reform package in response to the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal and violations by former Reps. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), Mark Foley (R-Fla.) and Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.).

Government transparency advocates argue that members of the House Ethics Committee can’t be counted upon to hold their colleagues accountable as well as an independent watchdog like the OCE.

“This is alarming given the Committee’s poor track record when it comes to committing to a timely, publicly accountable process,” Issue One Executive Director Meredith McGehee said in a statement.

The OCE has the power to investigate allegations against lawmakers, but lacks the authority to dole out punishments or issue subpoenas. It can make recommendations to the Ethics Committee as to whether a case should be investigated or dismissed.

The Ethics Committee then decides the next steps. But reports by OCE must be publicly released after a certain amount of time has passed, unless the Ethics Committee decides to open an investigation of its own. The OCE report, however, would still have to be publicly disclosed at the end of an investigation.

The bipartisan overhaul of Capitol Hill’s sexual harassment policies came after multiple male lawmakers were accused of sexual harassment. Female lawmakers, including an author of the legislation, Rep. Jackie SpeierKaren (Jackie) Lorraine Jacqueline SpeierOvernight Defense: Administration says 'low to moderate confidence' Russia behind Afghanistan troop bounties | 'Low to medium risk' of Russia invading Ukraine in next few weeks | Intelligence leaders face sharp questions during House worldwide threats he Intelligence leaders face sharp questions during House worldwide threats hearing House removes deadline for ratifying ERA MORE (D-Calif.), also shared their own stories of being sexually harassed while working on Capitol Hill.

The latest lawmaker to be accused of sexual harassment is Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.), after The New York Times reported Saturday that he used taxpayer money to settle a complaint from a former staffer. 

Following the New York Times report, Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanOn The Money: Senate confirms Gensler to lead SEC | Senate GOP to face off over earmarks next week | Top Republican on House tax panel to retire Trump faces test of power with early endorsements Lobbying world MORE (R-Wis.) moved to strip Meehan from his position on the House Ethics Committee and urged him to reimburse taxpayers for the settlement.

The harassment overhaul bill would end the practice of taxpayer-funded settlements for lawmakers accused of harassment. Any member of Congress accused of harassment who agrees to a settlement would be required to reimburse taxpayers within 90 days.

Another House Republican, Rep. 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), also acknowledged recently that he agreed to an $84,000 settlement after a former aide, Lauren Greene, accused him of sexual harassment. Farenthold has said he will take out a personal loan to repay taxpayers.

Farenthold is now under investigation by the House Ethics Committee. But the OCE had previously reviewed Greene’s claims and concluded in 2015 that there was not substantial reason to believe Farenthold sexually harassed Greene.

According to a GOP aide familiar with the crafting of the legislation, Farenthold’s case led to the provision concerning OCE. Greene’s legal counsel had said that the OCE investigation “unduly harmed” Greene’s case in litigation, which led the House Administration Committee to include the provision in the bill.

Speier called the OCE “a dead letterbox for complaints.”

A spokeswoman for the House Administration Committee said that limiting investigations to the Ethics Committee would streamline the process.

“The provision ensures that only one entity is conducting the investigation to make certain there is an accurate gathering of facts and a swift reporting of those findings,” the spokeswoman said.

But McGehee warned that the provision bore a resemblance to the effort by House Republicans a year ago to weaken the OCE by putting it under the oversight of the House Ethics Committee. Republicans ultimately reversed course following public outcry.

“This covert move is reminiscent of House leadership’s behind-closed-doors effort to sabotage OCE at the beginning of the 115th Congress,” McGehee said.