The House on Tuesday approved a bipartisan legislative package that significantly reshapes the chamber’s system for handling internal workplace misconduct, including a requirement that lawmakers pay for their own harassment settlements.
The pair of harassment measures that passed by voice vote include a resolution, crafted to change House rules right away without requiring Senate action, that establishes an Office of Employee Advocacy to represent victims of alleged workplace misconduct. The second piece of legislation, a bill that now goes to the Senate for consideration, would require lawmakers to personally pay harassment settlements stemming from their behavior — and mandate broader public reporting of past harassment payouts.
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Both parties’ leaders on the House Administration Committee crafted the legislation alongside the bipartisan leaders of the House Ethics Committee and a handful of senior lawmakers in both parties. The group began digging into combating harassment on Capitol Hill after a wave of misconduct scandals forced the resignation or retirement of a half-dozen members of Congress in both parties.
“Since Day One, I have said that there is no place for sexual harassment or any type of harassment, and that one case is one case too many — period,” Rep. Gregg Harper (R-Miss.), the administration panel’s chairman, said in a statement. “I believe the measures passed by the House today provide the needed reforms to greatly improve our workplace.”
The bipartisan bill also eliminates the requirement for Hill employees alleging harassment to submit to counseling and mediation before pursuing a claim with workplace misconduct adjudicators at the Capitol’s Office of Compliance. Other provisions in that legislation would bar relationships between lawmakers and aides they supervise as well as rename the compliance office the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights.
House Ethics Committee Chairwoman Susan Brooks (R-Ind.) and that committee’s top Democrat, Ted Deutch of Florida, hailed a provision in the bipartisan bill that requires the compliance office to refer to their panel any claim covering a lawmaker or senior staff member. The compliance office also would be required to share with the ethics panel any investigative materials related to those claims.
“In light of our recent experience seeking information from OOC, we believe these changes are necessary to clarify interactions between the ethics committees and OOC,” Brooks and Deutch said in a joint statement Tuesday.
The harassment legislation’s future in the Senate remains murky, even though Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) won 20 cosponsors for her bill making some of the same sweeping changes and Rules Committee members in both parties began talks weeks ago on their own package of reforms.
The Rules panel’s top Democrat, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, said through a spokeswoman that “our bipartisan working group is continuing to focus on ways to change work environments and reporting processes in Congress and we will work with House and Senate leaders on a final bill.”
A senior Republican on the Rules panel closely involved in those talks, West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, said late Monday that the House’s swift movement “certainly gets me motivated to solidify what we’re going to do” on harassment. Capito added that she continues to see a Senate agreement within reach, potentially soon enough to be attached to a broader must-pass spending or fiscal bill in the coming days.
The House resolution that enacts an immediate rules change also requires lawmakers to certify that they have not used their offices’ taxpayer-funded personal budgets to settle harassment claims, a direct response to scandals over the use of that funding source by former Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Rep. Pat Meehan (R-Pa.) to resolve misconduct claims against them.
The House bill that now goes to the Senate also requires the compliance office to report every six months on the amounts disbursed from a taxpayer-funded account it maintains to resolve harassment claims on the Hill, in addition to the individual offices to which those settlements apply.
Further, the bill incorporates elements of a proposal by Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) to provide transparency about past settlements by requiring a report within 30 days on “all payments made with public funds” in previous years to resolve harassment claims. That change does not require the identification of the offices involved.
While broadly popular, one provision in the House resolution has raised concerns among some congressional watchdogs: language that prevents the independent Office of Congressional Ethics from acting on harassment probes while a claim is getting investigated by the chamber.
Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist with the nonprofit group Public Citizen’s Congress Watch, said in a statement that the outside ethics office “must remain a strong, independent check within Congress, and we remain committed to fighting against any weakening of the office’s power.”
“It is unfortunate that this good and necessary measure is being used to undercut the office’s role in the ethics process.” Holman added.
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