On Tuesday, the House passed two significant and grossly overdue bills aimed at combating sexual harassment on the Hill. The bills prohibit sexual relationships between lawmakers and their staffers and seek to simplify harassment reporting procedures, while forcing lawmakers to pay their own settlement costs out of pocket. Kind of weird that none of this was in writing before, right?
From the Washington Post:
H.R. 4924 alters the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 to require members to reimburse the Treasury Department when they are involved in settlements; automatically refers cases that have settled to the House Ethics Committee; extends workplace protections to unpaid staffers, including interns; gives staffers the ability to file a lawsuit at the same time as they file a complaint; and improves record-keeping.
A separate resolution, House Resolution 724, requires each member of the House to adopt policies prohibiting harassment and discrimination; establishes the nonpartisan Office of Employee Advocacy to provide assistance to staffers with complaints; mandates that each member’s office certify it is not using its budget for workplace settlements; and prohibits sexual relationships between members and “any employee of the House that works under [their] supervision.”
Many of these issues, as you’ll probably recall, have come up in recent months; Reps. John Conyers, Patrick Meehan, and Blake Farenthold were all found to have paid out sexual harassment settlements, and Sen. Al Franken resigned in January after being accused by numerous women of inappropriate contact or forced kissing.
The Washington Post notes that the only controversial element of the new legislation is the provision in H.R. 4924 that steers claims exclusively to the House Ethics Committee rather than the Office of Congressional Ethics; the argument is that the Ethics Committee is less transparent and reliable on these issues than the OCE. That said, as The Hill underlines, the OCE made the highly questionable decision not to move forward with Lauren Greene’s claims against Blake Farenthold in 2015, so there were clearly issues in that office as well.
“Thanks to the #MeToo movement, the American public has made it clear that they have had enough,” Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) said on Tuesday. “They expect Congress to lead, and for once we are.”