Harassment rules play into race for Speaker

Harassment rules play into race for Speaker
© Greg Nash

House lawmakers from both parties want any candidate running for Speaker to promise to push for an overhaul of Capitol Hill’s sexual harassment policies.

While there is no organized effort to demand that any Speaker hopeful make a pledge to such reforms, a number of House members told The Hill that a candidate’s stance on the issue will be one of the criteria they use to decide whether to back someone vying for the Speaker’s gavel.

Some items on their wish list, such as prohibiting the use of taxpayer dollars to settle sexual harassment claims, will likely find easy support with any Democrat or Republican seeking the top leadership job. But more contentious changes, including publicly revealing the names of lawmakers who have settled claims, may be a tougher ask, since the idea faces some resistance in both parties.


Still, the heightened attention on the issue — and the fact it could influence a leadership race — underscores the growing support for revamping Capitol Hill’s sexual harassment policies following the national “Me Too” movement.

“If the issue doesn’t come up, I might ask him or her, whoever [the candidate for Speaker] might be. It could be a factor,” said Rep. Roger WilliamsJohn (Roger) Roger WilliamsCongress starts first day of shutdown with modest hope Senate agrees to last-ditch talks, but no clear path over shutdown Pelosi vows Dem help after GOP ‘meltdown’ on spending bills MORE (R-Texas). “It’s important to me that we send a message that it’s not acceptable.”

“Yes. Yes, yes, yes. That’s something I would certainly insist on,” said Rep. Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellDemocratic donors stuck in shopping phase of primary Five takeaways from acting AG's fiery House hearing Top Judiciary Republican to Swalwell: 'Stop running for president' MORE (D-Calif.).

The push for more transparency around using taxpayer dollars to resolve sexual harassment cases has found strong support among conservative hard-liners, who came to Congress promising fiscal responsibility and cuts to wasteful spending.

“There are a lot of things the Speaker has to change around here, and that would be one of them,” said Rep. Justin AmashJustin AmashBusiness, conservative groups slam Trump’s national emergency declaration House approves motion condemning anti-Semitism Schiff: Intel chiefs testimony may ‘undermine’ Trump’s ability to declare emergency for wall MORE (R-Mich.), a member of the far-right House Freedom Caucus, which is considering running one of their own candidates for Speaker.

“My criteria has always been follow the rule of law and the constitution. And then after that, fiscal responsibility. So it all fits right together,” said Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), discussing whether someone’s support for sexual harassment reforms will influence his selection for the next Speaker.

The issue could even surface in some campaigns in the midterm elections. Tea Party insurgent Art Halvorson, who is running to replace retiring Rep. Bill ShusterWilliam (Bill) Franklin ShusterExiting lawmakers jockey for K Street perch GOP struggles to win votes for Trump’s B wall demand House and Senate negotiators reach agreement on water infrastructure bill MORE (R-Pa.), said that if he’s elected to Congress, he will not support someone for any leadership role unless they promise to release the names of all lawmakers who used taxpayer dollars to secretly settle sexual harassment claims.

He also called for any members running for a leadership post to agree to ban taxpayer-funded settlements.

“If we’re going to turn our country around, we have to drain the swamp — and that’s part of draining the swamp. That’s as perfect of an example that I can think of. That’s why we put it in there,” Halvorson said in a telephone interview.

“This is our opportunity to put a new Speaker in charge who has to meet a certain criteria.”

The House already passed landmark legislation in February that would streamline the process available to Capitol Hill staffers to report harassment, provide additional resources for people filing complaints and establish transparency requirements for taxpayer-funded settlements to resolve cases.

Under the legislation, members of Congress accused of sexual harassment would be personally on the hook for any settlement payments. And any lawmaker who agrees to a settlement would have to reimburse taxpayers within 90 days and would be barred from using any office funds to pay the costs.

But the bill, which came after a string of accusations of misconduct against lawmakers, has remained stalled in the Senate, where there have been concerns about making members of Congress personally liable for settlements.

There had been some discussions about attaching the measure to a massive spending bill in March, but the legislation was ultimately left out of the funding package.

Lead sponsors of the bill such as Rep. Jackie SpeierKaren (Jackie) Lorraine Jacqueline SpeierFemale Dems see double standard in Klobuchar accusations Joe Kennedy introduces resolution rejecting Trump’s transgender military ban Overnight Defense: Gillibrand offers bill to let transgender troops serve | Pentagon ready to protect US personnel in Venezuela | Dems revive fight with Trump over Saudis MORE (D-Calif.) are still hopeful that they can get the bill over the finish line before the end of the year.

But if that doesn’t happen, some members hope to use the upcoming Speaker’s race to further ratchet up pressure on congressional leaders to prioritize the issue, for example by agreeing to attach reforms to must-pass bills.

Swalwell said the next Speaker could take some steps to overhaul how Congress handles sexual harassment allegations by making changes to the rules package that members adopt in the beginning of every Congress in order to govern House operations.

The California Democrat wants to see an end to the use of taxpayer dollars for sexual harassment settlements and the unsealing of previous cases if the victim consents to the disclosure, among other changes.

“I think [any candidate] for Speaker should make it clear” where they stand on those issues, Swalwell said.

“I know where Leader Pelosi stands,” he added, “and I feel comfortable with her doing that.”

Rep. Ted DeutchTheodore (Ted) Eliot DeutchHouse panel advances bill to expand background checks for gun sales Whitaker takes grilling from House lawmakers Parkland father on Gaetz advocating for border wall in gun violence hearing: 'Pretty offensive' MORE (D-Fla.) agreed that anyone who wants the most powerful job in the House should “absolutely” have to answer questions about which sexual harassment reforms they would push for if they were in charge — whether they are a Democrat or Republican.

Given that the House already passed a bill to improve how Congress responds to sexual harassment allegations, it seems that the likely candidates running for Speaker next year will be able to check that box if it’s a requirement for some members.

House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiThe national emergency will haunt Republicans come election season On unilateral executive action, Mitch McConnell was right — in 2014 National emergency declaration — a legal fight Trump is likely to win MORE (D-Calif.), who is expected to make a bid for Speaker if Democrats take back control of the House, has been a vocal proponent of efforts to reform how Congress deals with sexual harassment.

And GOP leaders have also been promoting the anti-sexual harassment legislation, bringing it to a House floor earlier this year. Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanUnscripted Trump keeps audience guessing in Rose Garden Coulter defends Paul Ryan: This is 100 percent Trump's fault The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Kidney Care Partners — Trump escalates border fight with emergency declaration MORE’s (R-Wis.) top lieutenant, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyCongress allows Violence Against Women Act to lapse Mandatory E-Verify: The other border wall Bret Stephens: Would love to see Hannity react when Dem declares climate change emergency MORE (R-Calif.), is considered an early front-runner to replace him when he retires in January.

But asking congressional leaders to reveal the names of lawmakers who have settled harassment claims, a provision that was not included in the House-passed legislation, is a far more divisive idea and could be a tougher demand for any Speaker candidate.

There is concern in both parties that retroactively revealing the names of members could punish lawmakers who were unfairly accused but agreed to settle claims instead of engaging in a protracted legal battle.

Even lawmakers who support efforts to overhaul sexual harassment policies on Capitol Hill are wary of the idea.

“There’s a fine line between someone using this as a political weapon versus legitimate,” said Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Mich.).