Politics

Lawmakers Rekindle Efforts to End Harassment on Hill but Face Uncertain Future

Recent omnibus did not include sweeping House-passed harassment measure

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., right, blames Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for not including the House-passed sexual harassment legislation in the recent omnibus bill. Also pictured, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-Maine. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A renewed push is underway to more forcefully address Capitol Hill’s sexual harassment problem, just as the latest scandal has led another lawmaker to retire.

It’s not yet clear if a bipartisan call from female senators will be strong enough to prompt Senate leadership to take up legislation to protect staff on Capitol Hill when lawmakers return Monday from a two-week recess. All 22 female Republican and Democratic senators signed on to a letter last week urging Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer to bring House-passed legislation to the floor.

Congress doesn’t have major legislation on the horizon, with fiscal 2018 government funding already signed into law and re-election fights raging ahead of the November midterms. Whether the calls for action on sexual harassment legislation will yield a spot in the wide-open floor schedule remains to be seen.

Watch: What’s the Status of the Anti-Harassment Bill on Capitol Hill?

The legislative push follows enactment of the omnibus spending package, which did not include the sweeping House-passed harassment measure as many lawmakers had sought, though it includes funds for House-only initiatives and an expansion of protections for Library of Congress employees. A co-sponsor of that bill, Rep. Elizabeth Esty, announced Monday via Facebook that she will not run for re-election following bipartisan criticism of her handling of an abusive staffer.

The Connecticut Democrat kept her chief of staff on the payroll for months in 2016 after learning of abuse allegations against him and wrote him a letter of recommendation when he left. “I could have and should have done better,” she said on Facebook.

“In Congress, and workplaces across the country, we need stronger workplace protections and to provide employees with a platform to raise concerns, address problems, and work to reduce and eliminate such occurrences, in the first place,” she added. She is the first female lawmaker since the emergence of the #MeToo movement to announce the end of her congressional career because of a harassment scandal.

A group of lawmakers, including the Democratic trio of Rep. Jackie Speier and Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Kirsten Gillibrand, hoped that the House-passed bill to revamp the Congressional Accountability Act would be wrapped into the omnibus. The harassment bill has languished in the Senate since the House passed it in early February.

The spending package, however, omitted proposed major changes to the process for reporting complaints of harassment and discrimination and any requirement that lawmakers personally reimburse the Treasury for harassment settlements.

The House has adopted additional protections for its employees through resolutions, but the Senate has yet to act.

Speier blamed McConnell for the omnibus lacking the bipartisan House bill, which would overhaul the process for reporting and responding to sexual harassment and bar taxpayer-funded settlements.

“We will not be thwarted in making sure that Capitol employees can pursue their careers in a safe workplace free from harassment and discrimination. Sen. McConnell should be ashamed of himself … though he probably isn’t,” she said in a statement to Roll Call.

The California Democrat spoke last year of her experiences with harassment as a congressional staffer in the 1970s and she was involved in negotiations to include harassment language in the omnibus.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi also called for Senate action on the House bill. “Nearly eight weeks ago, the House passed the bipartisan #MeToo Congress legislation to address the broken congressional process,” she said in a statement Monday. “The Senate is overdue in passing that legislation.”

McConnell spokesman David Popp said the Kentucky Republican “supports members being personally, financially liable for sexual misconduct in which they have engaged.”

Regarding floor action, Popp pointed to work by senators drafting legislation. “I don’t yet have a prediction on when that will be completed,” he said.

Gillibrand introduced her own anti-harassment bill with 17 Democratic co-sponsors in November. The House version, by Speier, served as a blueprint for the bill that ultimately passed the chamber.

Watch: Former Congresswomen Reflect on Sexual Harassment Issues

Omnibus funding

The omnibus signed into law last month included $5 million in funding for anti-harassment and discrimination efforts implemented in the House.

Training on preventing harassment and discrimination in the workplace is now mandatory for all House members and staff and is funded at $4 million. House trainings, required under a resolution adopted in November, must be in person, address options for bystanders, and trainees must be allowed to ask questions anonymously.

“Mandatory training is an important first step to ensure that every member, staff, intern, fellow and detailee is fully aware of the laws that apply to them and their right to a harassment-free workplace,” said an explanatory statement on the bill from the House Appropriations Committee.

The House’s new Office of Employee Advocacy, which provides legal advice to victims going through the complaint and resolution process, will receive $1 million.

The Office of Compliance, which enforces workplace protections under the Congressional Accountability Act, saw a $1 million boost in the omnibus. The extra funds could go toward supporting the Library of Congress, as the omnibus brought it under the full protections of the CAA.

 

Library of Congress

Until now, the library did not use the OOC administrative dispute process for claims based on the Family Medical Leave Act or civil rights.

Since 1996, the OOC has inspected Library of Congress buildings and grounds for safety and health standards and regulations related to public accessibility under the American with Disabilities Act, OOC spokeswoman Laura Cech said in an email to Roll Call.

Employees were limited to using the process provided by the library for claims including harassment or discrimination. The language in the omnibus that allows library employees to use the OOC process for complaints does not eliminate the library’s own dispute procedures. Employees are now able to choose which path to move their case through.

Watch: Roll Call Reporters Discuss Covering Sexual Harassment on the Hill in the #MeToo Era

Capitol security

The omnibus spending bill also includes funding for increased protection of members and security on the Capitol campus.

According to the Senate Appropriations majority statement that accompanied the bill, much of the Architect of the Capitol’s $94.2 million funding increase will be prioritized for projects that address safety at the Capitol. The Rayburn garage project would allow it to be fully within a secure perimeter, for example.

The Capitol Police also received a funding boost, a $33.2 million increase over the fiscal 2017 level. The force plans to use $7.5 million to increase protection of lawmakers with more robust training, and new technology and equipment.

The focus on security comes as members face increased threats. It was also driven in part by the shooting last June at the Republican baseball practice, where House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and four others were wounded.

Joe Williams contributed to this report.

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