Congress passes sexual harassment legislation, House members want to do more

December 13, 2018

Congress unanimously approved new rules Thursday to tamp down on sexual harassment on Capitol Hill but even as lawmakers took a victory lap, some said they didn’t go far enough.

Under the changes, investigations will be sped up and lawmakers will have to reimburse the government for any harassment settlements or court awards paid out because of their actions. It would also provide for annual reports on settlements.

The rules, once signed by President Trump, will be binding on both the House and Senate.

But House negotiators said they want to do more, at least for their employees, such as holding House lawmakers personally liable for discrimination claims, in addition to the harassment claims covered under the bill.

“Because we had to go through the compromise in the Senate, the one section that got taken out was the member accountability for violating Title VII,” said Rep. Jackie Speier, California Democrat, referring to the section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that governs workplace discrimination over race or sex.

Ms. Speier said the bill that cleared this week also provides legal representation for employees in the House, but not for those of the Senate. The upper chamber staff is only given legal guidance on pathways forward for pursuing their claim.

“Hopefully there will be a movement of a lot of Senate staffers to the House side because they want that protection,” the congresswoman said.

Congress was under pressure to take action in the wake of the #MeToo movement and revelations that members of Congress engaged in sexually inappropriate behavior. Congress revealed that taxpayers footed the bill for tens of thousands of dollars in settlement payments.

Both the House and Senate rushed to clamp down, passing their own versions earlier this year.

The House bill went further than the Senate, and it took months to work out the compromise that was struck on Wednesday.

The House version included the broader liability provisions covering payments for discrimination as well as harassment. It also would have afforded victims a more thorough investigation including subpoenas and the interviewing of witnesses.

Rep. Bradley Byrne, Alabama Republican, said that investigation process will be included in their new legislation he’ll introduce with Ms. Speier in the new year.

“We are going to do that in the next Congress,” Mr. Byrne said. “I believe we are setting an example.”

The compromise bill passed Thursday allows the government to withhold money from lawmakers’ pension payments if they retire before they pay back any settlements.

That was the issue with former Rep. Blake Farenthold, a Texas Republican who promised to repay $84,000 from a harassment settlement then reneged after leaving office.

The new rules limit lawmakers’ liability to claims stemming from their own behavior related to harassment. They are not liable for the conduct of their staff.

The rules will apply to any new claims made from this point forward though it doesn’t apply to settlements previously reached.

Advocacy groups were relieved Congress finally took action, but said there’s still more work that must be done, including making all members House and Senate personally liable for discrimination.

“Members of Congress owe it to the legislative workforce to ensure that the halls of power are free from sexual violence, harassment, and discrimination,” said Vania Leveille, legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union. “We look forward to working with both parties and in both chambers.”