Updated 3:21 p.m. | A sweeping bill aimed at combating sexual harassment on Capitol Hill was introduced Thursday by House Administration Chairman Gregg Harper. The Mississippi Republican said he hopes the measure will be expedited through the chamber.
Lawmakers say the the bill will make the reporting, resolution and settlement process more transparent, while also protecting victims’ identities and providing options for House employees who come forward.
Notably, the measure would mandate lawmakers reimburse the Treasury for settlements of harassment claims, and require the publishing of such settlements every six months, according to a fact sheet. House employees alleging harassment would be provided “immediate access” to an advocate to provide legal advice and representation, and to support them through Office of Compliance and Ethics Committee proceedings.
The bill would also prohibit sexual relationships between lawmakers and staff, and between staff when one is a subordinate.
“This legislation fundamentally reforms how victims of sexual harassment will be treated in the Congressional workplace and makes clear we are committed on a bipartisan basis to zero tolerance for sexual harassment,” Virginia GOP Rep. Barbara Comstock said in a news release.
The long-anticipated measure is the work of a bipartisan group, including Reps. Robert A. Brady, D-Pa., and Comstock from House Administration and Reps. Susan W. Brooks, R-Ind., and Ted Deutch, D-Fla., from House Ethics.
“This past fall, we pledged to enhance the workplace safety of Congress, and today’s bipartisan legislation brings us one step closer to fulfilling that promise,” Speaker Paul D. Ryan said in a statement. “It ensures that victims of workplace harassment have the resources they need to get the justice they deserve.”
The bill would overhaul the reporting and resolution process under the Congressional Accountability Act, enacted in 1995, that set workplace protections for its offices and established the OOC to enforce them.
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Comstock told Roll Call in December, when the bill was being drafted, that an advocate was a key aid that former staffers told her was missing and would make the process more fair.
The current process of months of mandatory counseling and mediation would be eliminated under the bill and the measure would allow House employees to move forward on an investigation of the complaint or to file charges in federal court.
The OOC’s general counsel would have to make one of three findings before any hearing on the merits can be held: a reasonable cause for claim, no reasonable cause for claim or “no findings of reasonable cause can be made.”
House staff would also be given the opportunity to work remotely or request paid leave without fear of retribution.
The measure will also tackle taxpayer-funded settlements for sexual harassment in Congress, an issue that members across the political spectrum are united against. The bill would require members to personally repay the Treasury for harassment and discrimination settlements rather than using House legal settlement funds or their Members Representational Allowances, also known as office accounts, which are set in the annual Legislative Branch Appropriations measure.
Members would be required to repay Treasury accounts within 90 days for awards or settlements. Members who leave office would still be responsible for repaying the Treasury, including garnishing annuities to ensure full repayment.
Taxpayer money funded the $84,000 settlement for a sexual harassment claim against Texas Republican Rep. Blake Farenthold. On Dec. 4, he made a promise to repay the Treasury and later said he would not run for re-election.
More than a month after the initial promise, Farenthold told CNN that on the advice of counsel he was waiting to see what changes the House will make to the Congressional Accountability Act before repaying those funds.
“There has been so much secrecy and zero transparency to the process as it exists now,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz told Roll Call before the bill was announced. The Florida Democrat said that when victims are able to get through the reporting process and eventually reach a settlement, “then secrecy prevails and nothing else happens.”
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Under the measure, if a final award or settlement is reached against a House member, the claim would be automatically referred to the House Ethics Committee. This provision was first introduced as a stand-alone bill by Wasserman Schultz and fellow Florida Democrat Lois Frankel, and was wrapped into the larger measure.
Comstock has been a vocal advocate for changing the law’s provision that prohibits the release of basic information about complaints and settlements. Such regulations have made it difficult to understand the extent of the problem, she and other lawmakers have said.
The OOC would be required to report and publish online information on awards and settlements every six months. The employing office, the value of the settlement and the violation would be included in these reports. Information would also be published if the claim was made against a lawmaker and whether the member has personally repaid the Treasury account.