Congress on Thursday passed new sexual harassment rules governing lawmakers and staff on Capitol Hill, but House lawmakers already have plans to expand protections beyond what’s included in the compromise measure.
“This bill isn’t perfect, but that’s part of what the legislative process is about,” California Democrat Jackie Speier said Thursday. “We have decided to get this on the books to change the system that was woefully inadequate and then come back next year.”
Alabama Republican Rep. Bradley Byrne will team up with Speier to take on discrimination beyond sexual harassment in the congressional workplace. The pair was integral to the drafting and negotiation of both the House and the joint sexual harassment legislation.
Speier said she was “delighted” to work with Byrne on a bill that will require House lawmakers to be held personally liable for violations of title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which includes discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
“We’ve taken it a step further with regards to harassment, and we want to take it a step further with regard to discrimination,” Byrne said.
Speier said that while passage of the joint measure is a big step, she wished the provisions on member accountability for discrimination had not been removed in the compromise process.
The bill the House passed earlier this year included a provision that required formal investigations at the start of any inquiry into a harassment or discrimination claim, including subpoenas and witness interviews. The provision was modeled after the process conducted by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under Title VII, but was stripped from the joint bill passed by both chambers this week.
“Jackie and I both feel very strongly that we should provide that same sort of protection for our employees that employees have in the private sector,” Byrne said.
“Our legislation is going to contain that provision and I think it’s something we need to continue to fight on. We’ve committed to one another that we are going to do that in the next Congress,” he added.
Watch: Senate Quickly Passes Sexual Harassment Bill By Unanimous Consent
Not the taxpayers
Under the current law, if a staffer was fired on a discriminatory basis, he or she could bring a claim. But any judgment or settlement would be paid with taxpayer dollars from the U.S. Treasury.
“We feel if members are responsible for that … they should have to pay for it out of their personal funds, not through the taxpayer,” Speier said, offering the example of woman fired because she was pregnant.
The example is reminiscent of a case being looked into by the Office of Compliance.
Kristie Small, a former acting chief of staff to Texas Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar, filed a complaint in October that said she was fired for being pregnant, a violation of federal law. Before joining Cuellar’s office, Small worked for more than 13 years as an aide to Pennsylvania Democrat Robert A. Brady, the top Democrat on the House Administration Committee and a key player in the efforts to combat harassment and discrimination in Congress.
Both Byrne and Speier bring specific expertise to the effort of expanding protections for staffers working in congressional offices. Speier last year shared her personal story of being harassed and assaulted while working as a staffer on Capitol Hill.
“The chief of staff held my face, kissed me, and stuck his tongue in my mouth,” she recalled. “So I know what it’s like to keep these things hidden deep down inside.”
Byrne worked for 30 years as a labor and employment lawyer before coming to Congress. He has been vocal about being “shocked” at how complicated and inadequate the congressional process was for handling employment law claims, including harassment and discrimination.
They won’t be introducing their legislation as a resolution that just needs to pass the House, as the chamber did to mandate harassment training and tighten rules for House employees earlier this year.
On to the Senate
Introducing it as a bill means the measure will need Senate approval, which could prove challenging since that chamber stripped similar language from the legislation that cleared this week.
“That’s why we are where we are today because they wanted that provision taken out, but we feel strongly enough that it needs to be part of how the House operates,” Speier said.
Speier acknowledged that the key to advancing the proposed measure is that it won’t apply to senators or Senate employees. Leaders of that chamber have promised a vote on the proposal, she added.
“We’re under the impression that they’re not all that concerned about passing a bill that doesn’t apply to them,” she said.
She joked that there could be a wave of Senate staffers moving to the House side to get enhanced workplace protections.
While there’s more work ahead on workplace accountability, Speier, Byrne and Brady joined retiring House Administration Chairman Gregg Harper to praise the completion of the joint measure on sexual harassment.
“Hopefully, this shows, while it has come far too late, that Congress can govern and make change in the #MeToo era,” said Brady, who is also retiring at the end of the year.
“Time’s up for members of Congress who think that they can sexually harass and get away with it. They will no longer be able to slink away with no one knowing that they have harassed,” Speier said.
“Time’s up for all of those who somehow thought that victims could be ignored. They will not be ignored anymore,” she added.
Watch: Jackie Speier Hears Newly Uncovered Jonestown Tape For the First Time