WASHINGTON -- In the wake of high-profile resignations over sexual harassment claims, the House on Tuesday approved sweeping changes to its internal rules intended to protect staffers, including a prohibition on sexual relationships between members and their aides. Lawmakers also passed a bipartisan bill to overhaul the process for investigating and resolving complaints by congressional employees regarding sexual harassment.
The House by voice vote adopted the rules change, which goes into effect immediately because it only pertains to the chamber. Representatives also passed by voice vote the bill that would revamp the 20-year-old Congressional Accountability Act. That bill now heads to the Senate.
The 1995 accountability law set up workplace protections for Capitol Hill offices and established the Office of Compliance to enforce them, but was seen as in need of new provisions to protect victims of sexual harassment.
"There is no place for any type of harassment -- sexual harassment or any type of harassment, period, in the U.S. House of Representatives," said bill sponsor Gregg Harper, the Mississippi Republican who chairs the House Administration Committee. "We found the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 to be outdated and in need of this comprehensive reform."
Both measures were brought up under suspension of the rules, an expedited procedure used for noncontroversial resolutions and bills that requires a two-thirds majority for passage or adoption. Harper scrapped a planned markup on Monday to allow for quick floor action.
House employees who pursue complaints regarding sexual harassment or other discrimination will receive legal support from a new office created under the resolution, though a timeline on that office being set up is not yet clear. Members will now be required to certify that employee payroll funds are not being used to pay any settlements or rewards in connection to prohibited behavior.
Under the bill, the arduous process for reporting complaints of harassment and discrimination would see major changes. Required counseling and mediation periods would be made optional and investigations would be conducted by the general counsel of the new Office of Congressional Workplace Rights, which replaces the Office of Compliance.
"This bill empowers survivors," said Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier of California, who told last year of her experiences of harassment as a former congressional staffer.
The bill requires that "climate surveys" be conducted to determine the true scope of the harassment problem in Congress, and it gives congressional interns and fellows the same protections under the CAA as full-time staff.
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. If that is not possible, the employee could receive a paid leave of absence.