Politics

House Panel Approves Sexual Harassment Training Guidelines

‘Sea change’ in culture is sought

Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., chairman of the House Administration Committee, said new guidelines for sexual harassment and discrimination training represent a “sea change” in culture. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The House Administration Committee on Tuesday approved guidelines for implementing newly mandated sexual harassment and discrimination training, as members were set to unveil this week more legislation that would respond to allegations of sexual misbehavior on Capitol Hill.

The panel adopted by voice vote a set of regulations governing fulfillment of the training, including that it must be in person, have options for reporting complaints even from a bystander and that trainees must be allowed to ask questions anonymously. The House adopted a resolution Nov. 29 that mandated training for all House members and staff — but left the substance of the effort to the Administration Committee.

“This will really help cement what we are trying to do, which is to have a sea change in the culture here,” said Chairman Gregg Harper, R-Miss.

The committee action is final, with no further approval needed on the House floor. The move comes as Congress deals with the fallout of alleged harassment by members toward colleagues and staff.

Already, five male lawmakers have resigned or said they would not seek re-election next year following misconduct allegations, and the House has disclosed it has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to settle sexual harassment and sex discrimination complaints in recent years.

Under the regulations adopted by the committee, all House offices must post a statement of rights and protections provided to House employees under the Congressional Accountability Act.

Congress enacted the law in 1995, setting workplace protections for its offices and establishing the Office of Compliance to enforce them. But at that time, lawmakers exempted themselves from mandatory sexual harassment training, which is required in the executive branch.

The panel has held two hearings on harassment on Capitol Hill, including testimony from Barbara Comstock, R-Va., (who sponsored the resolution adopted in November) and Jackie Speier, D-Calif., on their own experiences. Lawmakers have also hosted a roundtable discussion with staffers and three listening sessions for House members on harassment in the congressional workplace.

“Training is an important step, but it is just the first step, there is more to do,” ranking member Robert A. Brady, D-Pa., said during the markup.

Lawmakers on the committee are planning to introduce a bill to amend the Congressional Accountability Act as early as Wednesday evening, according to Harper. The bipartisan effort is the result of the panel’s examination of existing policies, reporting and response process.

Under current policy, the compliance office requires 60 days of counseling and mediation before an accuser can request a hearing or file a federal district court case. Interns and congressional fellows cannot use the office to report harassment.

“We are trying to thread that needle in a way that increases transparency, protects the taxpayer dollars, and also doesn’t make it more difficult for someone who has a claim,” Harper said.

He laid out an ambitious timeline with introduction this week, a markup at the beginning of January and a vote on the House floor by mid-January. He didn’t say if he had commitment from House leadership to get the bill on the floor just weeks into the next session, but he said that Speaker Paul D. Ryan charged the committee with tackling the issue of harassment in the House.

“This is something we just can't ignore,” Harper said.

The committee's proposal will follow a number of bills already introduced in the House targeting sexual harassment, including one by Speier and another by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C.  Harper says his panel has reviewed all of the pending bills and is considering “every one of those issues.”

So far, there has not been a unified push from the Senate Rules and Administration Committee like the one in the House, though legislation has also been introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.

“We certainly plan to work with them,” Harper said, adding that the House proposal “will be a very broad bill that we hope that the Senate will look upon favorably.” 

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