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Congress Still Hasn’t Figured Out How To Deal With Its Own Sexual Harassment Issues

With the allegations against Brett Kavanaugh dominating talk on Capitol Hill, former staffers remind Congress they still haven’t passed their own legislation on sexual harassment.

Posted on September 20, 2018, at 4:17 p.m. ET

Brian Snyder / Reuters

Almost a year after the #MeToo movement rocked Capitol Hill, Congress has yet to pass legislation that would overhaul the secretive way sexual harassment allegations have been handled on the Hill for decades.

The allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh have put the issue of sexual harassment back in the spotlight for Congress. But at the same time, major bipartisan legislation to change the way Congress handles sexual harassment itself has seemingly stalled.

On Thursday, former staffers sent a letter to congressional leadership, calling on them to pass legislation before the end of the year that would address the outdated system in place.

“It has been almost one year since multiple claims of sexual harassment in Congress were made public, 7 months since the House passed its reform bill, and almost 4 months since the Senate did the same. Time is running out, but there is something you can do right now,” seven former staffers said in the letter, sent in partnership with the American Civil Liberties Union.

The extent of the problems related to sexual harassment on the Hill began to come to light last fall when BuzzFeed News reported sexual assault allegations against former Rep. John Conyers, who later resigned, and the secretive process Congress has used to settle sexual harassment and assault claims for years. Members had been able to settle workplace complaints against them, including those alleging sexual harassment, with taxpayer money and little oversight.

While Congress initially moved quickly and in an unusually bipartisan process to make these changes, months later the legislation has still not become law.

In February, the House passed a resolution that kicked in immediately, which, among other things, kept members from using office funds to secretly pay settlements for claims against their offices. That resolution applies only to House members, not senators.

The House passed larger legislation alongside that resolution that would require lawmakers from both chambers to pay back taxpayer-funded settlements related to sexual harassment and other complaints against them within 90 days or have amounts withheld from their salary until it is paid back. It would also ease the reporting process for employees — doing away with mandatory mediation between victims and members’ offices, for example — and make settlement information public.

The Senate passed its own version of that legislation in May after it had seemingly stalled out. Several senators, including Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, had urged Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring up the legislation in the Senate for months after the House passed their bill. The Senate’s legislation includes a lot of the same measures as the House bill. But notably, it only requires lawmakers to reimburse taxpayer settlements related to harassment, not discrimination. The House’s legislation covers both. This has been a major sticking point between both chambers.

Previously, outside groups, including the ACLU, had concerns about the Senate’s legislation, worrying that it left loopholes that could allow members to avoid reimbursing taxpayers in settlements.

Since May, informal conversations between the House and Senate have been working to reconcile their versions of the bill and create a final product that could pass both chambers and be signed into law, but they have shown no public results.

Aides insist that members are still meeting and making progress in working out their differences, however. Asked about the legislation prior to the staffers’ letter being made public, one Democratic leadership aide told BuzzFeed News there were no updates on the negotiations as the House and Senate work to reconcile their bills.

“There’s nothing new to report at this point other than meetings are continuing to happen. There has been some progress but given that there are ongoing negotiations, we can’t get into specifics,” the aide told BuzzFeed News in an email.

A spokesperson for McConnell echoed the statement, noting that “members are working in a bicameral, bipartisan way on reconciling the House and Senate versions.”

A congressional aide who worked on the legislation said they are “frustrated” that the process has taken this long.

“I think that we should have done this a year ago. And the longer that it takes to do it, the harder it becomes to do it,” the aide said. “The process right now is atrocious.”

But a staff member for California Rep. Jackie Speier, a prominent voice on the issue who was involved in the House’s legislation, told BuzzFeed News that there are some positive signs. “It sounds like they’re making progress on some of the key sticking points and our boss [is] confident that they will be able to hammer something out, if not before the election then before the end of the year,” the staffer said in an email Wednesday.

But the number of days that the House and Senate will be in session before the midterms are limited and opportunities to pass it are few.

One source familiar with the matter said in an email that the House Administration Committee and Senate Rules Committee “think they’re getting close. But with the House going out of session soon and not a lot of moving vehicles in sight, unclear what, if anything, will happen before the election.”

In a statement to BuzzFeed News, Reps. Gregg Harper and Robert Brady, the chair and ranking member of the House Administration Committee, said they are “optimistic” that reconciling the chambers’ legislation will accomplish the goals set out in the House’s bill.

Asked earlier this month about the legislation, Rep. Susan Brooks, one of the Republican leads on the House’s legislation, told BuzzFeed News, “We’re trying to continue to prod and encourage movement on it.”

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