WASHINGTON - The House passed legislation Tuesday to overhaul how members of Congress and their staff report sexual harassment on Capitol Hill, a response to reports about the current system’s tangle of confusing guidelines and culture of secrecy.
“From members to staff, no one should feel unsafe serving in Congress,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said in a statement following a voice vote.
Capitol Hill has found itself squarely in the center of a national reckoning over sexual misconduct and gender discrimination in the workplace. Since October, eight lawmakers have either resigned or abandoned re-election bids amid allegations of sexual misconduct. Some members and aides have complained about a patchwork system for reporting offenses and secrecy around settlements paid by lawmakers’ office.
Under the new legislation, lawmakers will be required to reimburse the Treasury within 90 days for any harassment settlements made with taxpayer funds, including members who’ve left office; if they don’t, their wages could be garnished.
The legislation also requires that a list of member offices that have reached sexual harassment settlements be published twice a year. Staffers and aides would no longer be required to participate in counseling and mediation before pursuing a harassment claim or filing a federal lawsuit, and will have opportunities to work remotely while their complaints are being investigated. The bill extends protections to interns and fellows.
Advocacy groups called on the Senate to quickly take up the bill, and for both chambers to strengthen laws designed to protect employees outside of Congress against sexual harassment.
“Congress must strengthen our workplace laws so that those days are over and that civil and human rights of all workers are truly protected,” said Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
The House also passed a resolution Tuesday barring lawmakers from using their office budgets to settle complaints. Additionally, the resolution requires each member office to implement an anti-harassment policy, and it establishes the Office of Employee Advocacy, which will provide aides who file complaints with legal assistance, consultation and representation. The resolution also prohibits members from engaging in sexual relationships with members of their staff.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said the legislation is an overdue move toward transparency.
“We are holding members personally responsible for settlements and are guaranteeing taxpayer money will never again be used to create a culture of complicity and silence around workplace harassment,” Pelosi said.
Data recently released by the Committee on House Administration showed member offices have paid more than $300,000 in taxpayer funds to settle sexual harassment and sex-based discrimination claims over the past 15 years.
But that amount doesn’t account for all harassment settlements. For example, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., who was forced to step down in December after being accused of lewd behavior by six women, came under fire for using $27,000 from his own office budget to settle a sexual harassment claim. Such settlements, structured into payroll, are almost impossible to trace or detect.
Among the lawmakers whose careers were derailed by misconduct accusations is Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., who faced allegations from several women that he groped them while posing for photos. A radio host also accused Franken of forcibly kissing her during a USO tour in the Middle East in 2006, and circulated a photo in which Franken can be seen pretending to grope her breasts. He stepped down in January.
Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., stepped down after a staff member complained that the lawmaker had asked her to carry his child in exchange for $5 million.
Reps. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, and Ruben Kihuen, D-Nev., both announced late last year they wouldn’t seek re-election: Kihuen after he was accused by two women of inappropriate sexual behavior as a state lawmaker and on the campaign trail, and Farenthold after renewed criticism over his use of taxpayer funds to settle a harassment claim. He pledged he’d pay back the $84,000, but has not yet done so.
Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, abandoned a re-election bid after a nude photo of him was circulated on social media.
Rep. Patrick Meehan, R-Pa., who is a member of the House Committee on Ethics, announced last month he wouldn’t seek re-election after news reports revealed that he settled a sexual harassment claim with a former aide. Another Republican lawmaker from Pennsylvania, Tim Murphy, resigned in October amid allegations that he asked a woman with whom he was having an affair to have an abortion.
Leaders of the House Ethics Committee released a statement after the vote calling it an important first step. But the committee also asked for clarity about when and how the Office of Compliance must provide information about allegations of misconduct against lawmakers.