House unveils landmark sexual harassment overhaul bill

Image: The Capitol is seen in Washington on Jan. 3, 2018.
The Capitol is seen in Washington on Jan. 3, 2018. Copyright J. Scott Applewhite AP
By Leigh Ann Caldwell with NBC News
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The legislation is an attempt to overhaul a draconian and secretive system that has helped silence victims and favored the accused.

WASHINGTON — Taxpayers would no longer foot the bill for sexual harassment settlements involving members of Congress under new bipartisan legislation released Thursday. Coming in the wake of the #MeToo movement, the bill would require members to pay such settlements themselves as part of an effort to overhaul a byzantine, secretive system that has been in place on Capitol Hill for decades.

The legislation, known as the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 Reform Act, is the culmination of nearly three months of work by members of both parties and comes after months of revelations of sexual harassment allegations that has led to the resignation or retirement of half a dozen members of Congress.

The bill, first reported by NBC News, gives victims more rights and resources when they file a sexual harassment complaint, simplifies the process and seeks to provide more public transparency.

Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., head of the House Administration Committee, who helped write the legislation with Rep. Bob Brady, D-Pa., told NBC News in an interview shortly before the bill was released that it "goes a long way toward preventing future bad behavior."

"What we want to do is create — and I think we're seeing it already — a sea change in the culture in the members and the staff," Harper said.

In a statement Thursday, House Speaker Paul Ryan applauded the legislation, which is expected to have widespread support and pass easily.

"This past fall, we pledged to enhance the workplace safety of Congress, and today's bipartisan legislation brings us one step closer to fulfilling that promise," Ryan said. "It ensures that victims of workplace harassment have the resources they need to get the justice they deserve."

"No staffer or Member should ever feel unsafe in public service, and this bill will help make that a reality," Ryan added.

The measure, much of which came from a proposal by Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., a House leader on the issue of sexual harassment, tries to create an equal playing field for the complainant while imposing personal accountability on the accused.

"I mean it's a really great bill," Speier said. "It's been a very bipartisan and cooperative effort."

The most consequential proposal would prohibit lawmakers from using taxpayer funds to settle claims. The accused must reimburse the U.S. Treasury within 90 days of a settlement, and if they do not their wages will be garnished. If that's not enough, a members' retirement account and Social Security could also be garnished. Lawmakers would also have to use a new certification process to prove such settlements are not paid out of their congressional office accounts.

"We're going to wipe this kind of behavior out from a financial standpoint if nothing else," Speier said.

The bill also creates a legal office to represent complainants similar to the existing one that provides counsel and representation for members of Congress.

"Those who have gone through the process have felt a little overwhelmed," Harper said. "Now you've got somebody who's got your interest at heart."

It also prohibits employment retribution, allowing complainants to keep their job while the process proceeds, by working remotely or taking paid leave.

To overhaul the complaint process, which has often been called cumbersome and degrading for the victim, it removes the requirement that a nondisclosure agreement be signed in order for someone to open a complaint.

Furthermore, any confidentiality agreement must be agreed upon by both parties. It also removes a mandatory 30-day counseling stage and 30-day mediation stage that has often intimidated accusers from moving forward. Instead, an investigation is opened immediately and mediation is voluntary.

One major concern from members of Congress was an onslaught of frivolous lawsuits. In an attempt to deter them, complainants will have to file their complaint under oath.

The legislation was supposed to be released before the Christmas holiday but it wasn't complete and members didn't want to rush it.

"This bipartisan proposal is the result of months listening and learning about how we can improve the process. These reforms focus on justice for the victim instead of protecting the offender and they are long overdue," Brady said in an email.

It's the first major overhaul of the system since it was created in 1995, after a major sexual harassment scandal involving Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore.

Since 2003, $199,000 has been paid out from the U.S. Treasury in sexual harassment claims in the House. That doesn't include a $27,000 payment by Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., which was made from his personal account. And it doesn't include the Senate's $14,260 settlement and a $220,000 payment against Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., for an employee of the bicameral Helsinki Commission.

The rash of allegations and settlements have led to a series of resignations and retirements in recent months.

Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, who paid an $84,000 settlement, announced he would not seek re-election at the end of his term. Conyers stepped down from Congress after his settlement was revealed. Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., resigned after it came to light that he offered a former staff member $5 million to carry his child.

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, said he wouldn't seek re-election after nude photos of him were made public, and Rep. Ruben Kihuen, D-Nev., announced he wouldn't seek re-election after the House Ethics Committee opened an investigation after a campaign aide and a lobbyist accused him of sexual harassment. And Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., stepped down after several women said he groped them before he became a senator.

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