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Congress Just Made Major Changes To How It Handles Sexual Harassment

The overhaul will ease the process of reporting harassment claims on Capitol Hill, which came under scrutiny when the #MeToo movement reached Congress more than a year ago.

Last updated on December 13, 2018, at 2:09 p.m. ET

Posted on December 12, 2018, at 6:17 p.m. ET

Zach Gibson / Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The Senate and House passed a bipartisan deal on Thursday that will overhaul how sexual harassment is handled on Capitol Hill, after months of stalling.

The deal, lawmakers announced Wednesday, will take a variety of steps to change how Congress deals with sexual harassment, including publicly naming members who are personally liable. It will also ease the process of reporting harassment claims, which came under scrutiny when the #MeToo movement reached Congress more than a year ago. President Donald Trump still needs to sign it into law.

The legislation reforms the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995, which sets up the complaint process for Hill employees. For decades under the CAA, the Office of Compliance facilitated taxpayer-funded settlements for workplace allegations against members and their offices in secret. That office will be drastically overhauled under the new legislation, according to a release from Sens. Roy Blunt and Amy Klobuchar, who put together the deal on the Senate side.

Lawmakers will be personally liable for awards or settlements related to harassment “they personally commit, including Members who leave office.”

According to the senators’ release on the deal, it will also allow employees to pursue an administrative hearing or file a civil action, and do away with the 30-day counseling period, 30-day mediation phase, and 30-day cooling-off period that are currently built into the complaint process.

The legislation will also require public reporting of awards and settlements, which entails identifying the lawmaker if they were personally liable. It will also ensure that claims against members or their senior staff will be referred to the Ethics Committee. (The Ethics Committee loses jurisdiction over members when they resign and rarely punishes members even after investigations are completed.)

Protections under the CAA will be extended to include unpaid staff members, including interns, for the first time, and employees who have filed a complaint will be provided opportunities to either work remotely or take paid time off “without fear of retribution,” per Blunt and Klobuchar’s release.

Of note is what did not make it into the legislation: Congress was stalled for months on this issue in large part over whether lawmakers would be held personally liable for awards or settlements related to discrimination in addition to harassment claims. Ultimately, that piece did not make it in.

“While this compromise with the Senate is a good first step, House Republicans and Democrats remain committed to working in a bipartisan manner to address outstanding issues in the 116th Congress, including passing legislation which holds Members personally liable for discrimination, reauthorizing the Employee Advocate, and strengthening our workplace rights and responsibilities education program,” House members who worked on the legislation, including Reps. Jackie Speier, Bradley Byrne, Gregg Harper, and Robert Brady, said in a joint statement.

House Speaker Paul Ryan and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi also joined the release.

Reps. Speier and Byrne, a Democrat and Republican who worked closely on the legislation, said they will present legislation in the new Congress that will hold members personally liable for violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, to get at the discrimination pieces that didn’t make it into the legislation.

“We’re going to introduce it as a bill so it would have to pass the Senate as well. We’re under the impression that they’re not all that concerned about passing a bill that doesn’t apply to them, so they’ve given us a commitment that they will have a vote on it,” Speier said.

UPDATE

This post has been updated to reflect the fact Congress passed the bill through both the House and Senate on Thursday.


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