In the wake of #MeToo and Time's Up, the U.S. House of Representatives voted Tuesday to reform the way sexual harassment complaints are handled in Congress. Representatives passed a bipartisan bill that is now going to the Senate, where it has to be voted on before it can be signed into law by President Trump, and also a House resolution that goes into effect immediately.
Both parties have dealt with misconduct allegations and the subsequent fallouts among their ranks in the last few months. Over the fall, current and former congresswomen and staffers opened up about their experiences dealing with harassment in Congress — even going as far as disclosing that some of the accused were male lawmakers currently serving. Elected officials like Sen. Al Franken and Rep. Trent Franks stepped down after allegations of harassment surfaced; others like Rep. Blake Farenthold and Rep. Ruben Kihuen announced they won't seek re-election.
Though both the House and Senate passed resolutions making sexual harassment awareness training mandatory for members and staff in November, it was also necessary to fix the complaint process. The system has been criticized for being archaic and protecting abusers instead of the victims — from the way the complaints were submitted, to the level of secrecy surrounding the allegations, and the fact that members of Congress were able to use taxpayer money to settle cases.
The process required accusers to spend months in mediation and counseling before even being able to file an official complaint. The parties involved in the case were also required to sign a confidentiality agreement. And if the accuser still wished to go ahead with a complaint, they would have to file it in court or ask for an administrative hearing.
The Congressional Accountability Act Reform Act, a bipartisan bill, fundamentally changes the procedure. It eliminates the mandatory counseling and mediation processes, requires the Office of Compliance to make public every six months details of the settlements, makes available advocates to help staffers navigate the complaint process, and requires members of Congress to repay settlements within 90 days. (This is not the first effort to curb sexual harassment on Capitol Hill. A similar legislation known as the ME TOO Congress Act was introduced in November.)
The House resolution, which went into effect immediately, requires each member's office to adopt an anti-harassment, anti-discrimination policy. It also creates the Office of Employment Advocacy, which would help staffers navigate workplace issues; blocks House members from quietly settling harassment claims through the use of office funds, salary adjustments, among other measures; explicitly bans sexual relationships between representatives and staffers (except in the case of married couples); and officially says House members "may not engage in unwelcome sexual advances or conduct" toward fellow representatives or staffers.
Refinery29 contacted Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and several members of Congress to ask about Tuesday's vote. We'll update this story when we hear back.
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