Political News

House lawmakers unveil legislation to overhaul harassment protocol on Capitol Hill

Posted January 18, 2018 1:18 p.m. EST
Updated January 18, 2018 2:14 p.m. EST

— House lawmakers on Thursday unveiled a long-awaited bipartisan plan aimed at tackling the way that workplace complaints -- including sexual harassment -- is handled on Capitol Hill and to hold lawmakers personally liable for settlements.

The bill, supporters say, would be the most significant step toward addressing sexual harassment on Capitol Hill and would make the process less arduous for victims.

The legislation would streamline the process a House of Representatives employee must go through to report a workplace claim, including eliminating the mandatory 30-day counseling and mediation period.

It would also require members of Congress to repay the Treasury fund controlled by the Office of Compliance within 90 days, including members who leave office, and would require that each claim in which an award or settlement is made be referred to the House Ethics Committee -- something that is not done automatically.

There is currently no requirement that lawmakers repay the Treasury for settlements made with taxpayer money -- though one lawmaker, Republican Rep. Blake Farenthold of Texas, has said he plans to repay an $84,000 settlement with a former aide using a personal loan. He has yet to do so.

The legislation, born out of the outcry over Capitol Hill culture in the wake of the #metoo movement, is the product of a bipartisan group of lawmakers that includes Reps. Gregg Harper and Robert Brady, the chair and ranking member of the House Committee on Administration, and other members including Reps. Jackie Speier of California, Barbara Comstock of Virginia and Bradley Byrne of Alabama.

Lawmakers have been under pressure for months to address the once-secretive system through which sexual harassment and misconduct complaints are handled and to expose lawmakers who have paid settlements using taxpayer money.

The Office of Compliance currently has provided only limited information about settlements, largely at the behest of lawmakers. The House legislation, though, would require the Office of Compliance to report and publish information on awards and settlements -- including the employing office, the settlement or award amount, whether the claim was against a member and whether the member has personally repaid the Treasury account -- every six months.

It will also require the Office of Compliance to conduct a climate survey of House employees every two years that includes questions about sexual harassment in the workplace --a response to lawmakers wanting to have a full accounting of how widespread a problem sexual harassment really is on Capitol Hill.

The legislation is the latest and most significant step toward addressing sexual misconduct on Capitol Hill. Late last year, members on both sides of the Rotunda adopted bipartisan resolutions that mandates that members, staffs and interns participate in anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training.

Sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior led to the recent resignations of three lawmakers: Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat; Trent Franks, an Arizona Republican; and John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat. Several other lawmakers have abandoned re-election bids in light of accusations of harassment or misconduct, including Nevada Democratic Rep. Ruben Kihuen and Farenthold, the Texas Republican House member.

The Senate is also working on its own legislation and has been working with the House closely throughout the process.