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Congress passes overhaul of sexual harassment policies, Trump expected to sign

The bill holds lawmakers, including those who leave office, personally financially liable for settlements resulting from harassment and retaliation.
Image: President Donald Trump departs for the annual Army-Navy college football game in Philadelphia
U.S. President Donald Trump waves to the media on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington on Dec. 8, 2018.Yuri Gripas / Reuters

WASHINGTON — Thirteen months after the #metoo movement rocked the halls of the Capitol, Congress has passed bipartisan legislation that makes major changes to how sexual harassment claims are addressed on Capitol Hill.

The House and the Senate unanimously passed the bill after months of negotiations between the two legislative bodies who struggled to reach agreement on accountability requirements.

It must now be signed by President Donald Trump for it to become law.

The measure holds members of Congress personally liable for awards and settlements stemming from harassment and related retaliation they personally commit, including those who leave office. They can no longer pay out settlements with taxpayer funds and would be required to foot the bill within 90 days or their wages could be garnished.

The major reform is a reaction to a significant number of current and former congressional aides — mostly women — who revealed that they were harassed by a member of Congress or a high-ranking aide. In just this Congress, it led to the resignation of at half a dozen members after allegations surfaced.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are praising the bill as much-needed reforms to a broken system that was stacked against victims of sexual harassment and rarely mandated accountability of the accused.

"Time’s up. Time is finally up for members of congress who think they can sexually harass and get away with it. They will no longer be able to slink away with no one knowing that they have harassed. There will be transparency and members will be held accountable," Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said Thursday.

Republican Rep. Bradley Burn, R-Ala., added: "That sound you are hearing is the swamp draining when it comes to harassment in Washington, D.C."

The bill updates a 1995 law — the Congressional Accountability Act — that governs harassment claims in Congress.

In addition to holding lawmakers personally accountable, it would also require the public reporting of a settlement, including naming the member of Congress who paid the settlement.

It also provides "an advocate" for victims who file complaints in the Senate and in the House the victim is provided legal representation, similar to one provided to the lawmaker who is being accused of harassment.

The agreement aims to cut down on the processes that deter a victim from moving forward with a claim, including a previously required 30-day "cooling off" period, the 30-day "counseling" period and the mandatory arbitration, which victims and their attorneys have said was more of a interrogation instead of an arbitration.

It also expands protections to interns and fellows, who are usually hired for a short term basis.

"These changes will provide the congressional workforce with the resources and protections they deserve, while making members of Congress more accountable to the constituents they serve.," the victims' advocacy groups Congress Too and the Purple Campaign wrote in a statement.

The Senate was much more cautious and secretive throughout the process of crafting and passing a bill. They pushed back on several accountability measures backed by the House.

But after the midterms, when voters elected a record number of women – 102 – to the House, many of whom inspired by the #MeToo movement to run, negotiations between the House and Senate again in earnest.

"I think the final hurdle was getting beyond the election and getting everybody here for more than one day at a time, at the same time," Blunt told reporters about the deal.

Despite the progress, the House negotiators had hoped the legislation would go further. They are disappointed that the Senate would not agree to require personally liability for discrimination complaints and vowed to work on a new bill in next year.

House Administration Chairman Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., ranking member Robert Brady, D-Penn., and Rep. Speier, led negotiations with Senate Rules and Administration Chairman Blunt and Ranking Member Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.

The #MeToo movement spread to Congress in 2017 when Speier spearheaded the #MeTooCongress movement by sharing her story of sexual harassment from her time as a Congressional staffer and inviting others to do the same.

Speier raised the stakes when she testified before the House Administration committee that she knew of one sexual harasser in each party currently serving in Congress. Virginia Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock relayed a story of sexual harassment that forced a staffer to quit her job.

That same week, Speier and other members introduced the Me Too Congress Act, which became the basis of the legislation that just passed.