Politics

Lawmakers Reach Deal to Tackle Sexual Harassment on Capitol Hill

New agreement would end heavily criticized ‘cooling off’ period

The U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree is displayed on the West Front of the Capitol on Monday. The noble fir was harvested on Nov. 2 from Willamette National Forest in Oregon. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Congress will act quickly on compromise legislation to overhaul how sexual harassment is handled on Capitol Hill. The new proposal, released Wednesday, has the backing of leadership in both chambers and parties.

Negotiations to reconcile the separate House and Senate proposals that passed easily early this year have dragged on for months. But swift action is expected in the Senate this week and the House the following week.

“This is certainly a victory for Congress, to get this done,” said House Administration Committee Chairman Gregg Harper.

Getting the final harassment measure cleared before the end of the year has been an important deadline for negotiators.

“When the new Congress starts everybody will understand their personal liability and their personal responsibility, and that will be a good thing,” said Senate Rules and Administration Chairman Roy Blunt.

Democrats and Republicans in both chambers are in agreement that the opaque and arduous process for reporting sexual harassment claims in Congress is broken. The existing process was established as part of the 1995 law that governs workplace harassment and discrimination claims in Congress,  dubbed the Congressional Accountability Act. Under the bill released Wednesday, the lengthy CAA process for reporting complaints of harassment and discrimination would see major changes.

“Nobody got everything that they wanted in this. But overall this goes to what our philosophy has been and that is: bad behavior is not going to be tolerated,” said Harper.

The existing process is especially taxing for victims coming forward to report harassment, a key element that lawmakers wanted to change with the new bill. Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar said revamping the process and getting rid of the notorious “cooling off period,” is one of the most important changes.

The current process requires mediation between the victim and their employer and a 30-day period before a victim can make a decision whether to pursue justice in a courtroom or continue with administrative procedures.

There were major differences between the House and Senate proposals on what type of behavior lawmakers would be personally liable for and what kind of support victims would receive as they move through the process.

“It’s a process that’s set up for justice, not just for political protection,” said Klobuchar of the joint measure.

A major goal of the legislation is to end the practice of settling harassment claims against lawmakers with taxpayer dollars.

The Office of Compliance has handled cases totaling at least $15 million in settlements about harassment or discrimination allegations since 1997. The practice flew under the radar until the #MeToo movement emerged in late 2017 and lawmakers and taxpayers began to call for change.

More than 1,500 former congressional staffers sent a letter last year demanding changes to the law to protect accusers.

It is a challenge to assemble exact statistics for harassment cases on Capitol Hill because of the secrecy of the current rules. But the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission estimates about three-quarters of all people who experience harassment never talk to a superior or a workplace advocate about the experience.

The joint bill would hold members liable for their own bad behavior, but not for that of their staff.

“For the member to be liable, the member has to be personally involved. It can’t be a ‘failed to monitor your staff’ or something like that,” said Blunt. “You have to be personally involved. The liability is then yours,” he said.

Settlement language in the measure is “unlimited,” according to Blunt, but he said there is a limit to the size of awards that can be granted.

“If a member makes a settlement, they’re responsible for that settlement. If there’s an award, there’s some kind of award language that does at some point limit that liability,” he said.

The House and Senate proposals were furthest apart on liability for harassment or discrimination.

Under the joint measure, lawmakers would be liable for all harassment, whether sexual or based on race or other classifications. Blunt said the legislation is tightly focused on actions of an individual.

Klobuchar said that negotiators worked with the Congressional Black Caucus on the language related to discrimination. But the representatives of the caucus say that isn't that case.

“The Chairman’s office of the CBC was never consulted on final compromise language related to this compromise deal,” said Fabrice Coles, CBC executive director in a statement to Roll Call. 

“Certainly people are still protected if they are discriminated against, but they are protected like they would be working for any other employer,” said Blunt.

Under the new bill, staff filing harassment claims would be provided an advocate. The advocate can give legal advice but is not allowed to go on to serve as a victim’s legal representation.

The Ethics Committee in both chambers would review any settlements that are made under the new process. The House and Senate committees have different processes for the ethics review.

In a step towards transparency, a report of any settlements or awards involving lawmakers would be released annually.

Negotiators said they struck the deal Tuesday and briefed their caucuses Wednesday on the new compromise legislation.

“I think that the final hurdle was getting beyond the election and getting everybody here for more than one day at a time at the same time,” said Blunt.

“I think it says a lot that we’ve realized that this workplace, like every other workplace, has to clean up its act,” said Klobuchar.

The House plans to take further action beyond the sweeping overhaul of the CAA. Last week House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said if a compromise could be struck on policies for all of Capitol Hill, the House could enact additional policies for their own chamber focused on areas where members think joint legislation doesn’t go far enough.

“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,” said Harper, Robert Brady, Paul D. Ryan, Nancy Pelosi, Bradley Byrne and Jackie Speier in a statement Wednesday night.

Jennifer Shutt and Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

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