After months of stalling, on Thursday the Senate passed an anti-sexual harassment bill aiming to reform how Congress deals with sexual harassment within its ranks. While this could have been a celebratory moment, Senate’s bill is too little, too late, a watered-down version of a more robust bill the House unanimously passed back in February.
Here’s a summary of the Senate’s version of the bill, from the AP:
The bill eliminates mandatory counseling, mediation and the “cooling off” period victims are currently required to wait before filing a lawsuit or requesting an administrative hearing. It also requires members of Congress to repay the Treasury for harassment and discrimination settlements, including members who have left office. If a member doesn’t pay back the settlement amount, the bill gives congressional administrative committees the authority to establish a plan to withhold the member’s pay.
While the bill is an improvement over Congress’s current abysmal mechanism for dealing with harassment complaints, it falls short of the House’s bill, which incorporated more protections for victims. Hours before the vote, the American Civil Liberties Union, Equal Pay Today, National Women’s Law Center, and other groups blasted the bill, arguing in an open letter that it “contains numerous provisions that are contrary to key principles we’ve previously articulated, falls short of an acceptable compromise, and may have unintended negative consequences.”
Among the many concerns outlined in the letter, civil rights leaders wrote that the bill “appears to provide an opportunity for a Member [of Congress] who has settled a claim to avoid personal accountability and to be absolved from reimbursing the taxpayers.”
Behind the scenes, women in the Senate had reportedly been frustrated by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for blocking the bill from the Senate floor. Under the current system, taxpayers fund sexual harassment and discrimination settlements, which have amounted to almost $200,000 in the past decade. In April, the Atlantic reported that McConnell objected to “a provision that would make individual members financially responsible for harassment and discrimination settlements against them.”
Despite improving the mediation process, the bill continues to put the onus on the accuser to “opt out” of mandatory mediation, a practice that the House bill removed entirely “because it is unfriendly to claimants and perpetuates a practice that is primarily protective of the institution rather than the claimant.” Responding to the mediation provision in the Senate bill, California Rep. Jackie Speier said, “It’s creating a lot of additional hurdles and it takes protections away from the victim.”
The Senate bill also requires Congressional ethics committees—not independent investigators—to review each claim, determine whether to investigate, and reach a settlement. “That essentially leaves it up to lawmakers to decide the fate of their colleagues and whether they engaged in harassment — not an independent investigator,” Politico notes. Ethics panel members are also able to access the names of the accuser, which critics fear could lead to retaliation against vulnerable staffers. “There may be a chilling effect on staff if they know their names and personally identifying information may be shared with committee Members with whom they may interact throughout their career,” the letter states.
Congress finally began grappling with sexual harassment on Capitol Hall last fall, in the wake of numerous allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein. In the following months, more than half a dozen lawmakers have stepped down over allegations of sexual misconduct, including Rep. John Conyers, Sen. Al Franken, and Rep. Blake Farenthold.
The bill now goes back to the House, where lawmakers must determine how to reconcile the different language in the bills before moving forward to a vote.