Lawmakers are working on legislation to make members of Congress liable for settlements over sexual harassment claims against them.
The efforts to overhaul the sexual harassment settlement payment process comes after the Congressional Office of Compliance (OOC) released data this month that revealed at leastfour cases in which offices used a total of $199,000 of taxpayer money to settle sexual harassment claims.
GOP House Administration Chairman Gregg Harper of Mississippi hopes to file a sweeping bill Wednesday evening that would overhaul the system for reporting and handling sexual misconduct on Capitol Hill. It would put legislators in charge of footing their own bills for sexual harassment claims against them.
Members should reimburse the government for such payments, Harper told reporters Tuesday.
“There’s no doubt that members have made it clear that taxpayer dollars should not be used for the purposes of settling a sexual harassment claim," he said.
Watch: Former Congresswomen Reflect on Sexual Harassment Issues
What’s unclear is exactly how the bill’s language will shake out with regard to congressional offices as a whole. Will lawmakers still be able to dip into the OOC Awards and Settlement Fund — the taxpayer pool that’s been used for years — to handle cases against their office that do not contain allegations against the members themselves? How personally liable will they be for previously unknown bad apples within their office? And how about settlement cases in which the office does not admit liability?
Settlements of this nature are usually sealed by nondisclosure agreements. The OOC has not found an admission of liability in any of the settlement documents, executive director Susan Tsui Grundmann said in a letter to Harper last week.
A spokeswoman for the Administration Committee issued a statement Wednesday morning saying the chairman was working on sweeping legislation in which members “will be held accountable for conduct they engaged in.” The statement also promised “transparency in reporting settlements and awards moving forward.”
“Chairman Harper intends to release legislation this week reforming the Congressional Accountability Act,” the spokeswoman said. “This legislation will focus on all aspects of the CAA, including the reporting and settlement process, as well as holding Members personally accountable when settling claims of sexual harassment.”
There could still be a number of obstacles to the new bill’s effectiveness.
Despite the potentially hairy nuances, Harper believes the House could move on his impending bill as early as January.
Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier, who has led the crusade to stem sexual misconduct on the Hill over the last month, was “thrilled” with the idea, she told Reuters Tuesday.
Speier introduced her own legislation in November that dramatically reduces the timeline for employees who have undertaken the sexual misconduct claims process.
Under current procedures, congressional employees who want to file a complaint have to wait nearly three months before they can officially do so.
The OOC gives congressional employees up to 180 days after an alleged incident of harassment to request mandatory legal counseling. If they opt to do so, that legal counseling lasts for 30 days. If the victim wants to move forward from there, he or she must next participate in 30 days of mediation, where the employee and the office can confidentially reach a voluntary settlement.
After that two-month process, the employee can request an administrative proceeding before a hearing officer or file a case in federal district court — but only after a 30-day “cooling-off” period after mediation.
To expedite the process for actually lodging an official complaint, Speier’s legislation would make the legal counseling and mediation steps optional. That would dramatically reduce the amount of time it takes for employees to file their complaint.
The Senate has released bipartisan legislation of its own to update sexual misconduct training and reporting at the Capitol.
“We must create a culture within our Capitol Hill community that instills in every employee and employer, new and old, that there is no place for sexual harassment in the halls of Congress,” Harper said in a statement Tuesday along with the most recent OOC data release.
“As I have stated from the beginning of this review,” he said, “one case of sexual harassment is one case too many.”