The House of Representatives passed a bipartisan bill last week that reforms the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995, which provides the current guidelines for how sexual harassment, discrimination and other related claims are handled on Capitol Hill. The new reform bill awaits a vote in the Senate.
This bill, produced in light of the Me Too movement, overhauls the current federal law that dictates how sexual harassment complaints are handled in Congressional offices. It streamlines the process of filing a complaint by eliminating the mandatory 30 day counseling and mediation period, provides staffers with an advocate and legal advice, and keeps lawmakers from using public funds to pay settlements, which was previously allowed. According to the House Administration Committee, about $200,000 has been allocated from a special Treasury Department fund to cover sexual harassment related settlements over the last two decades. This bill hopes to make the currently arduous and secretive process simpler for survivors, and it is meant to expose lawmakers who have already paid settlements using public funds.
Government transparency advocates are concerned because the bill bars the Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent supervisory entity, from reviewing the workplace complaints filed through the Office of Compliance. However, under this bill, the Office of Compliance would be required to publish reports every six months detailing settlements and the offices involved in the settlements. Critics also worry that the bill could make it harder for the public to learn about cases of misconduct and make it more difficult to sue members of Congress.
The new legislation is the result of an internal review initiated by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan in reaction to the Me Too movement. California Democrat Jackie Speier, one of the lead voices on the bill, referenced Me Too when talking about it: “Thanks to the ‘Me Too’ movement, the American public has made it clear that they have had enough. They expect Congress to lead and for once, we are.”
Said to be in support of victims’ rights, this bill is a bipartisan effort to address the slowly changing tides in U.S. culture in regards to sexual harassment. It came as a direct response to the series of allegations and resignations that recently occurred on Capitol Hill and beyond. It moved quickly through the House after being introduced only three weeks ago.
Last year, both chambers adopted a bipartisan resolution that requires members, their staff and interns to participate in anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training. These actions are not going to solve all sexual harassment problems in Congress, but their development signifies a step in the right direction, especially due to their support on both sides of the aisle. Speier described the House bill and this moment as a “rare and crucial moment of bipartisanship.”
In addition to this bill, the House also changed their rules regarding sexual conduct, which does not require the Senate’s input. The most drastic change is that House members are now banned from having sexual relationships with their employees. They also established a new office of employee advocacy that represents those who file complaints. Previously, only lawmakers had this resource. In addition to this, it requires that Congressional offices certify they haven’t used any public funds to cover the costs of settlements from harassment claims.
Sources: CNN 2/6/18; The Hill 2/5/18; NBC News 1/18/18, 2/6/18; NPR 2/6/18;