An unprecedented legal move earlier this year is now forcing congressmen in the United States to pay for settlements in sexual harassment lawsuits. The bill has also made it easier for abuse victims to make their way through the process of filing sexual harassment complaints on Capitol Hill.
This new bill was embraced by congressmen from both parties, led by Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va, Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif, and Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., who also leads the House Administration Committee, and who, before the vote had said, “There is no place for sexual harassment or any type of harassment, period.”
In the wake of the #MeToo movement with prominent public figures being accused of sexual harassment, several members of US Congress have also been accused in cases of sexual misconduct, resulting in the resignation of certain legislators, including Michigan Democrat John Conyers, who had served as congressman for five decades.
Congress has also faced public blowback due to reports that between 2008 and 2012, $342,000 from the US Treasury was paid in harassment and discrimination settlements, according to the House Administration Committee.
Rep. Comstock said, “Offenders, themselves, will have to pay.”
An amendment to the House Code of Conduct, banning sexual relations between Congresspersons and staffers that they supervise, has also been approved.
Changes to the Code also include a policy of anti-discrimination and anti-harassment that each office must adopt. The Office of Employee Advocacy has also been put in place for assisting staffers and other employees who lodge sexual harassment or discrimination complaints.
Rep. Speier has applauded the bipartisanship that made the passing of the bill possible, and has emphasized how it will empower abuse survivors. And while she maintains that House members will be accountable for their “bad behavior,” she also admits that there is yet more work to be done in other offices and workplaces.
Congresswoman Comstock believes that the bill needs to have taken a further step in naming House members who, in the past, have made settlements in sexual harassment cases, since this is yet undisclosed.
In 2017, resolutions were passed in Congress and in the Senate, requiring all the the members of the House, as well as all their staffers to attend anti-sexual harassment training.
These resolutions are amendments to the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act, the law that for the first time stated the workplace rules that Congress must adhere to. They are meant to bring more transparency as well as streamline the process that harassment or discrimination complaints undergo, which can take several months, and which mandates that the person making the complaint submit to mediation and attend counseling.
The new bill also states that the Office of Compliance to post awards and settlements online every six months, and conduct a survey every other year that will measure the attitude of sexual harassment among staffers and other employees.
The House Administration Committee conducted meetings, hearings and discussions with victims for several months, and Congressman Harper has said that the current programs for anti-sexual harassment harassment are insufficient, and he recommended that the Congressional Accountability Act be thoroughly revised.
Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., believes that the rules concerning sexual harassment in the private sector should also be applied in the House. “This bipartisan legislation is a shining example of how Congress should work. Republicans and Democrats came together to bring the congressional workplace into the 21st century and ensure that Congress plays by the same rules as the private sector.”