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House passes bill to address sexual harassment in Congress

The House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed legislation Tuesday that would reform the way lawmakers' offices handle cases sexual harassment.

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Daniella Diaz, Kate Sullivan
Sunlen Serfaty (CNN)
WASHINGTON (CNN) — The House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed legislation Tuesday that would reform the way lawmakers' offices handle cases sexual harassment.

But their bill would weaken the authority of the independent entity currently probing lawmakers' behavior, according to outside ethics watchdogs.

The bill, born in the wake of the #MeToo movement, would overhaul aspects of the Congressional Accountability Act, the decades-old law that put in place the system through which sexual harassment, discrimination and other workplace-related claims on Capitol Hill are handled.

The bill is an an attempt to make the once-secretive system less arduous for victims. It is also meant to expose lawmakers who have paid settlements using taxpayer money.

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 currently not done automatically.

"From members to staff, no one should feel unsafe serving in Congress," House Speaker Paul Ryan said in a statement. "We promised we would deliver real change to the system, and today we are."

More difficult to sue?

But the bill, could also make it harder for the public to learn about cases of misconduct, and victims have complained the new process could make it more difficult to sue members of Congress.

The legislation had been worked on for months by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Reps. Gregg Harper of Mississippi and Robert Brady of Pennsylvania, the top Republican and Democrat on the House Administration Committee, as well as Reps. Jackie Speier, D-California, and Bradley Byrne, R-Alabama.

It was a direct response to a series of allegations, resignations and retirements that have rocked Capitol Hill in recent months regarding lawmakers from both parties making inappropriate comments or sexually harassing female staffers.

"We changed the system so we protect the victim and not the perpetrator," Brady said on the House floor Tuesday. "This is long overdue."

The bill would freeze out the Office of Congressional Ethics, specifically saying it cannot investigate any claim filed with the Office of Compliance, and leaves it to the House Ethics Committee, which has a mixed track record of sanctioning lawmakers and very little in the way of public disclosure requirements, to decide whether a lawmaker violated House rules.

The bill's authors maintain that the reason they added language limiting those who could investigate cases is because they thought it would be duplicative to have OCE involved.

Speier defended the bill, saying it doesn't freeze out the OCE.

"The ethics watchdog has no subpoena authority -- can't do any investigation -- so they would have to refer it to the Ethics Committee," she said. "It is now going to be referred to the Ethics Committee after the investigation is done and if there's a settlement."

She continued: "So, I don't think that. The victim isn't represented by counsel before the OCE, so it's just not an appropriate place. This is a workplace human resource issue, and it should be handled with this comprehensive approach that we're now undertaking."

This is the second time that the House has worked to take away authority of OCE.

Last January, House Republicans voted to force the panel, which was created in 2008 to serve as an outside check and screener of allegations of wrongdoing, under the Ethics Committee, a move that gutted its charter.

After President Donald Trump tweeted his opposition to the idea, the GOP quickly retracted the effort.

This legislation is the latest -- but most comprehensive -- step toward addressing sexual misconduct on Capitol Hill.

Late last year, members on both sides of Capitol Hill adopted bipartisan resolutions that mandates that members, staffs and interns participate in anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training.

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

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