The 'Long Overdue' Bill That Could Change How Congress Handles Sexual Harassment Allegations

"These reforms focus on justice for the victim instead of protecting the offender and they are long overdue."

On Jan. 18, when the government shutdown was still looming, the House introduced a bipartisan bill that aimed to overhaul the system that governs how Congress deals with sexual harassment. The bill, which was authored with the intent of improving transparency and reporting options for employees on Capitol Hill, is an amendment to the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act and was introduced by Congresswoman Jackie Speier (CA-14) with the backing of about a dozen of her colleagues from both parties.

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Rep. Speier has demonstrated her dedication to fighting sexual harassment in Congress and beyond, and shared her own sexual assault story on Twitter late last year. "Congress is finally cleaning House with the introduction of this groundbreaking and bipartisan legislation," Speier said via a press release. "All of us, regardless of geography or party, have heard from our constituents that Members of Congress must not be allowed to abuse staff, get away with it, and stick taxpayers with the bill."

The current system, which politicians on both sides agree is deeply flawed, allowed for dozens of sexual harassment cases to be settled with taxpayer funds. In fact, the Office of Compliance (OOC) — a secretive body that addresses workplace complaints in Congress — disclosed it paid out upwards of $700,000 in federal money to settle complaints against members and their staff since 2008. 

Part of what this new bill stipulates, however, is that members must personally reimburse the US Treasury for any taxpayer money they paid as settlements for sexual harassment complaints against them. This new bill also requires that any taxpayer money used for settlements must be paid back within 90 days, or could result in withholding funds from a member's salary, retirement account, or social security until the amount is paid off.

As Speier told NBC News, "We're going to wipe this kind of behavior out from a financial standpoint if nothing else."

However, the bill does go beyond how sexual harassment settlements are to be handled from a financial perspective. Buzzfeed News notes the new bill "extends protections for congressional employees to unpaid staff, such as interns," and requires the OOC (which the bill requests be renamed the "Office of Congressional Workplace Rights") release public reports every six months detailing complaints it has handled.

"I am proud to have worked with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to craft what I believe is a strong, comprehensive reform to the congressional process that will empower victims and hold Members accountable," Speier added in her press release. "I am also confident that we will not stop here. The #MeToo movement is driving change from boardrooms to break rooms, and I am committed to ensuring Congress looks beyond itself to improve the lives of all workers and Americans."

Other notable portions of the bill include the establishment of a new Office of Employee Advocacy, which would provide legal help and consultation for employees on Capitol Hill to assist in addressing sexual harassment complaints. No such office currently exists, meaning those who have  filed complaints often had little or no support and were tasked with paying for their own legal representation. Conversely, members of Congress and their offices had the option of being represented by the House counsel.

A final but crucial change to make note of is that this bill does away with a controversial mediation and a cooling-off period before a formal investigation into any sexual harassment claims can begin. Though this has been the norm up until now, Thursday's bill mandates an investigation into the incident to begin immediately, and gets rid of the OOC's current requirement that those who file complaints sign a confidentiality agreement in order to move forward with the process.

"This bipartisan proposal is the result of months listening and learning about how we can improve the process. These reforms focus on justice for the victim instead of protecting the offender and they are long overdue," Rep. Bob Brady told Buzzfeed in a statement.

It's worth noting this bill comes roughly two months after the Senate introduced similar "Me Too" legislation, and not long after Sen. Al Franken and Reps. John Conyers and Trent Franks resigned following sexual harassment allegations against them.

Though no formal vote has been set, the bill is expected to pass the House before the end of the month, although it may be delayed by the shutdown.

Cover image Diego Grandi / Shutterstock.

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