Congress passes overhaul of sexual harassment policies
By JULIET LINDERMAN
WASHINGTON (AP) - Congress approved an overhaul Thursday of its process for handling sexual harassment claims, capping a tumultuous year that saw more than a half-dozen lawmakers resign amid allegations of sexual misconduct.
The bill passed both chambers and holds lawmakers, including those who leave office, financially liable for settlements resulting from harassment and retaliation. There is no cap on the amount a lawmaker would be liable for.
It also eliminates mandatory counseling and mediation for victims, as well as the "cooling off" period that they are now required to observe before filing a lawsuit or requesting an administrative hearing.
The legislation now heads to President Donald Trump, who is expected to sign it.
Efforts to overhaul the Congressional Accountability Act, which hasn't been significantly updated since its passage in 1995, began a year ago, when Capitol Hill found itself squarely at the center of the #MeToo movement. Allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct brought down several powerful, longtime lawmakers.
"Today, the Congress made historic progress to uphold human dignity and protect the inalienable right to live free from harassment or abuse," said Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. "This bill protects everyone in our legislative community from workplace abuse and helps foster a climate of respect and dignity in our institution."
The bill allows staffers access to a confidential adviser who is an attorney and able to offer technical assistance, advice and guidance, but not legal representation. The House earlier this year passed a separate resolution giving their own staffers access to House counsel, an extra protection not included in the final bill.
It also requires public reporting of settlements, including identifying lawmakers who are personally liable, and extends protections to interns, fellows and other staff.
"My message is quite clear: Time's up," said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who over the past year has become a poster child for the #MeToo movement on Capitol Hill after sharing her own story of being harassed by a high-level aide when she was a young staffer.
"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."
The legislation specifies that in the case of a court award or a settlement, lawmakers who don't reimburse the payment amount in a lump sum could have their wages, or possibly their Social Security checks, garnished.
"Time's up for everyone who thought victims could somehow be ignored," Speier said. "They will not be ignored anymore."
The final bill doesn't include some House measures, including making lawmakers liable for discrimination settlements and requiring an independent investigation into harassment complaints at the beginning of the process.
Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., a former labor and employment attorney and member of the Committee on House Administration, said the bill doesn't include a "a real investigation and I don't think anybody can pretend that."
Byrne and Speier plan to introduce a measure next year mandating a thorough independent investigation and requiring House lawmakers to pay back settlements stemming from discrimination.
Speier said the Senate would not agree to make their own lawmakers liable for discrimination complaints, but the chamber has said it would bring the bill to a vote when it's introduced. It will pertain only to House lawmakers, not senators.
The bill passed Thursday will not apply to past lawmakers.
On Thursday the nonprofit organization The Purple Campaign and Congress Too, a group of 1,500 former staffers who sent letters to lawmakers imploring them to strengthen anti-harassment protections on Capitol Hill, called the bill "a powerful message to these survivors that their stories were heard."
"Down every hallway and behind every door in Congress are good and dedicated people - often young people - who work long hours for little pay in hopes of improving the world around them" the groups said. "They deserve to serve their country in an institution that serves and protects them, and we're hopeful these reforms will do just that."
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