Congress has unveiled a new bill designed to curb sexual harassment on Capitol Hill.
The legislation comes in the wake of the #MeToo movement, which led to multiple sexual harassment accusations against – and resignations by — congressmen.
The bill, known as the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 Reform Act, would simplify what has until now been a convoluted, laborious and expensive settlement process for anyone who accuses a lawmaker or staff member of harassment. What’s more, taxpayers having been footing the bill for the settlements.
Lawmakers also hope to make the process for adjudicating sexual harassment allegations more transparent.
What the legislation would do
The new bill would eliminate:
- A mandatory 30-day counseling period for accusers, followed by a 30-day mediation period
- A requirement that accusers sign confidentiality agreements to prevent them from disclosing any terms or details of a settlement
- Funding of sexual harassment settlements by the U.S. Treasury (ultimately, taxpayers). The new bill would require members of Congress to repay the Treasury Department out of their own pocket within 90 days. If they don’t, their wages will be garnished. If needed, members’ retirement accounts and Social Security could also be garnished. The bill would also forbid payment from congressional office funds.
The bill would provide:
- Accusers the opportunity to work from home or take a paid leave while the complaint process unwinds
- Provide legal representation for accusers through a newly created Office of Employee Medicine. Victims will also be able to get counseling through the office. Presently, accusers have to foot their own legal bills, but taxpayers pay legal fees for the member of Congress or the office involved in the complaint.
Rep. Jackie Speier kicks things off
Rep. Jackie Speier kicked off the Congressional effort in October when she shared her own #MeToo story, dating back to her days as a staffer on Capitol Hill. Following that revelation, more than 1,500 current and former Hill staffers signed a letter calling on Congress to change the process.
Already, both the House and the Senate have adopted legislation calling for all 535 congressional members and their staffs to undergo sexual harassment training. Since 2005, California has required sexual harassment training for all supervisors within six months of becoming a supervisor, and at least once every two years.
Taxpayers paid $17 million in settlements
Records reveal that more than $17 million in public funds have been used since 1997 to settle workplace disputes on Capitol Hill, although it is not clear how much of that was for cases of sexual harassment.
Resignations and retirements
Allegations over the past several months have forced a series of congressmen to resign or retire.
- Rep. John Conyers, D-Michigan, stepped down after his $27,000 settlement with a former employee was revealed.
- Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., resigned after the Associated Press reported he had offered a former staff member $5 million to carry his child.
- Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., resigned after several women said he groped them before he became a senator.
- Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., announced his resignation in October after reports that the pro-life lawmaker asked his mistress to get an abortion.
Four congressmen have decided not to seek re-election when their terms are up in the wake of sexual allegations or revelations.
- Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas. In December, Politico revealed that Farenthold had used $84,000 in taxpayer dollars to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit with a former aide in 2014.
- Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, made his announcement after a nude photo of him surfaced online.
- Rep. Ruben Kihuen, D-Nevada. The House Ethics Committee had opened an investigation after a campaign aide and a lobbyist accused him of sexual harassment.
- Rep. Patrick Meehan, R-Pennsylvania. The New York Times revealed in January that he had used taxpayer dollars to settle a sexual harassment claim by a former aid.