After months of impasse, members of the Senate and House of Representatives were finally able to agree on a bicameral, bipartisan legislation to fix Congress' archaic system for dealing with sexual harassment complaints. Both chambers voted to pass the bill on Thursday, and now President Donald Trump needs to sign the legislation.
Some of the provisions of the deal include holding members personally liable for sexual harassment complaints, instead of allow them to use taxpayer money for settlements; publicly naming lawmakers involved in misconduct cases, instead of keeping the cases confidential; and eliminating some of the roadblocks to reporting.
"This is a bill that fundamentally changes the way sexual harassment cases are handled in the Senate and in the House," Sen. Amy Klobuchar, one of the sponsors of the legislation, told reporters. "The process we have will now protect victims of harassment instead of protecting politicians."
This past year, members of Congress were not immune to the reckoning about sexual harassment and power. Male lawmakers from both sides of the aisle faced their own set of allegations, leading to a swath of resignations. One of the results of the fallout was acknowledging that Capitol Hill's complaint system, which dates back to the the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995, was in desperate need of a fix.
Those who came forward with allegations were forced to spend months in a "cool-off period" involving mediation and counseling with their alleged harassers before being allowed to file an official complaint. The parties involved were also required to sign a confidentiality agreement, which in turn kept constituents in the dark about the allegations against their representatives. If the event that an accuser went ahead with a complaint, they were required to file it in court or ask for an administrative hearing. Lawmakers also could use taxpayer money to settle the cases against them, which former representatives such as Republican Blake Farenthold and Democrat John Conyers took advantage of. (Farenthold, for example, has said he doesn't intend to repay the $84,000 he used to settle a sexual harassment and gender discrimination suit against him.)
The new deal blows everything up, extending protections to accusers instead of the accused. First off, it eliminates allowing lawmakers to use taxpayer money to fund settlements. Instead, members will be personally liable in these cases, even if they eventually leave office, and directs the claims to the Ethics Committee. The legislation also gives accusers to choose whether they want to participate in the cool-off period or pursue action right away. Before, unpaid staff such as interns were not protected by the complaint system, leaving them vulnerable. The legislation changes that. Another important victory for transparency is that awards and settlement will need to be publicly reported, which will include naming the lawmakers involved in complaints.