On Wednesday, members of the House and Senate ended their months-long battle over whose bill to combat pervasive sexual harassment in Congress is better, by agreeing to a plan that reshapes how Congress handles harassment claims. As the Washington Post reported, one of the big changes is that members of Congress will no longer be able to use public dollars to pay for sexual harassment settlements.
Several members of Congress have resigned this past year alone over allegations of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct. In recent years, members of Congress, including Representatives Pat Meehan and Blake Farenthold, have come under intense criticism for using public money to settle harassment claims. In the past decade, members of Congress have used tax dollars to pay out almost $200,000 to settle sexual harassment claims.
In a recent interview with Jezebel, NBC reporter Kasie Hunt, who has reported extensively on the issue, broke down some of the flaws of Congress’s current system of reporting and address sexual harassment and discrimination:
You had six months to decide whether or not you wanted to report it. If you waited six months and you didn’t say anything, after that you would have no recourse. If you wanted to report it, you had to go to an obscure office called the Office of Compliance. There was a poll that Roll Call did of Hill staffers and most of them had no idea that this office was even there. At the time, the office was not available to help interns or anyone who was not an official Capitol employee.
Once you reported it, you had to go through a mandatory counseling period where they would make you assure them that, yes, you really did want to go forward with it. You had to go to mediation and, very often, if you did end up getting a settlement, you were forced to sign a nondisclosure agreement.
You had your own lawyer in the process, but the lawyers for whoever it was that you were accusing, be it a member of Congress or another member of the staff, those lawyers were paid for with taxpayer money. As were—or are, I should say—the settlements that resulted from these complaints. If you are a member of Congress who has had a staffer accuse you of harassment or something else nefarious, and they agree that there was something wrong and they were willing to settle with you, that money was not coming from them, it was coming from the taxpayers.
The new policy aims to correct many, though not all, of those problems. Here’s what the agreement includes, courtesy of the Post:
Under the agreement, the mandatory counseling, mediation and “cooling off” periods for accusers would be eliminated. Any settlement or award would be automatically referred to the respective chamber’s ethics committee. Members’ liability would be capped for awards but not settlements. And that liability would continue even if a member leaves office.
The deal involves greater transparency. Awards and settlements would be publicly reported, including whether a member of Congress was held personally liable, and a staff survey would be conducted each Congress about workplace culture.
The compromise would extend protections to unpaid staff, including interns and fellows and provide opportunities for accusers to work remotely or request paid leave.
Whether this new policy will change the culture at Capitol Hill remains to be seen. As Hunt said to Jezebel earlier this year: “The big question is just going to be, if they do put this into place, whether or not it works, and whether or not Hill staffers who are effected by this feel as though the new system that is created is fair to them, and one that they can navigate.”