Politics

Senate Anti-Harassment Bill Could See Fast Action

Lawmakers would be held personally liable for misconduct

Senate Rules Chairman Roy Blunt, R-Mo., says that victims of workplace harassment in the Senate are confronted by a process that is “stacked against them.” (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Updated 6:34 p.m. | The Senate is moving to combat sexual harassment on Capitol Hill with a bill aimed at overhauling the process for reporting and resolving claims of harassment and discrimination, in addition to holding lawmakers personally liable for misconduct settlement payments.

The proposal, unveiled Wednesday, has the backing of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer. And the chamber could pass it as early as Thursday. The House passed a sweeping overhaul of harassment procedures in February.

“Congress isn’t immune to it — for too long victims of workplace harassment in the Senate have been forced into a process that is stacked against them,” Senate Rules ranking member Amy Klobuchar said in a joint statement on the release of the bill with Chairman Roy Blunt. Klobuchar and Blunt are the measure’s authors. 

With support from Senate leaders, the bill could fly through the chamber. “We’re optimistic that after our members review the legislation, this bill will pass the Senate in short order,” McConnell and Schumer said in a rare joint statement. The House-passed measure may be the vehicle used to bring the Senate proposal to the floor.

The Senate move follows high-profile resignations over sexual harassment claims in both chambers as the #MeToo movement reached Capitol Hill. Members of both parties criticized the current system after a series of recent complaints, including those that led to the resignations of Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., and Reps. Patrick Meehan, R-Pa., Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, Trent Franks, R-Ariz., John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., and Tim Murphy, R-Pa.

Watch: Klobuchar, Blunt Push for Senate to Pass Anti-Harassment Bill

It also comes after weeks of talks among senators to craft a consensus bill. Another bill filed this month by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., with Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, would make changes to the reporting process and provide a confidential adviser to victims of alleged harassment.

The Senate proposal would eliminate or make optional steps in a process outlined in a 1995 law that have been criticized for being arduous and burdensome for victims, according to a bill summary. The underlying law, called the Congressional Accountability Act, applies labor, civil rights, and workplace safety and health laws to Congress.

Periods of mandatory counseling, mandatory mediation and a 30-day “cooling off” period would be eliminated under the measure, although mediation would still be available if employees choose to utilize it. The Senate bill would double the amount of time, to 90 days, that employees have to request a hearing or file a civil action in federal district court, compared to the House bill.

Currently, congressional employees who file claims must return to work in the office where they faced the sexual harassment or discrimination. The bill would allow employees to work remotely while claims are investigated or litigated and if that is not possible, the employee could receive a paid leave of absence.

The bill would also require members of Congress to personally pay for any settlements to victims in cases where they are the alleged harasser. Lawmakers would have 90 days to repay the Treasury for the amount of the award or settlement before their salary would be withheld. Currently, settlements are paid with taxpayer funds. Both the Senate and House measures would make repayment mandatory.

The bill specifically defines the type of sexual harassment for which a lawmaker would be personally liable, including “an unwelcome sexual advance or request for sexual favors.”

The House and Senate Ethics committees would have new responsibilities, because all awards and settlements for harassment violations under the 1995 law would automatically be referred to the Ethics panels for review.

The Ethics committees would be required to review the settlements of harassment claims against members of the House and Senate within 90 days.  

Employees would also have the right to a “confidential advisor” to guide them as they move through the new complaint and resolution process. They would be lawyers employed by the new Office of Congressional Workplace Rights, which the Senate and House bills would create to replace the current Office of Compliance. The bill also allows either party, the victim or the defendant, to retain private counsel to “protect their respective interests.”

Differences

On member liability, the specificity of the Senate bill is a departure from language that passed in the House, which includes a more expansive view of cases in which personal liability would be triggered. The Senate text tightens the liability language, making members responsible for all settlements from their own misconduct, including other forms of discrimination such as gender, race and age discrimination.

Lawmaker liability would be capped at $300,000 — according to the legislation they would be on the hook for “compensatory damages,” which are already limited in current law to $300,000.

The Senate proposal would make changes to what is reported about awards and settlements, requiring that the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights report annually to Congress and publish on its website all awards and settlements when members are found to be personally liable from the previous year.

The reports would include the employing office, what part of the 1995 law was violated, and if the member was involved and whether they have complied with the repayment requirement. The House bill calls for semiannual reports.

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