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House adopts rules to curb sexual harassment

Katherine Tully-McManus, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in Political News

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 "We found the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 to be outdated and in need of this comprehensive reform."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.

The measure answers calls from both sides of the aisle to end the use of taxpayer dollars to pay out harassment settlements against lawmakers.

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"For years members of Congress have gotten away with truly egregious behavior," Speier said. "Members, yes, members are going to be held responsible for their bad behavior."

The bill would require members of Congress to personally pay for any settlements to victims in cases where they are the alleged harasser. Members would have 90 days to repay the Treasury for the amount of the award or settlement before their salary would be withheld.

The bill would require the workplace rights office each year to publish each award or settlement paid the previous year that involves CAA violations in addition to a report on all payments made with taxpayer funds prior to the bill's enactment. It does not require disclosure of the House or Senate offices involved in past instances, however.

"I still do believe we need to disclose the past names that are still unknown," said Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock of Virginia, urging the disclosure of all past sexual harassment settlements and the names of the lawmakers implicated.

The House-passed measure will now head to the Senate, where its fate is not clear. Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said Monday that "there are some changes we want to see" before moving the House bill, but didn't provide details on proposed changes. She suggested that anti-harassment legislation could hitch a ride on an eventual omnibus spending bill for fiscal 2018.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, has sponsored a wide-ranging bill called the ME TOO Act, after the hashtag #MeToo on social media. The House version of the proposal served as a starting point and a blueprint for the bill the House passed Tuesday.

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