WASHINGTON ― After months of delays and years of powerful men spending taxpayer money to cover up sleazy behavior, Congress is finally ready to pass a bill cracking down on lawmakers who sexually harass their staff.
House and Senate lawmakers reached a deal on Wednesday that worked out the remaining differences between separate bills passed by each chamber. The final bill is expected to pass the Senate this week, with the House likely to follow suit soon after.
“We have reached an agreement with the Senate on a strong package of reforms to the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 that will focus on protecting victims, strengthening transparency, holding Members accountable for their personal conduct, and improving the adjudication process,” reads a statement by Reps. Gregg Harper (R-Miss.), Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.) and Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), top negotiators on the bill.
“The agreement reflects the first set of comprehensive reforms that have been made to the Congressional Accountability Act since 1995,” they said.
House and Senate lawmakers have been at an impasse for months over how, exactly, to modernize their embarrassingly bad sexual harassment policy. Under current law, Capitol Hill staffers who claim they’ve been harassed or discriminated against have to undergo counseling, mandatory mediation and a 30-day “cooling off” period before going to court. Lawmakers can also spend taxpayer money to pay for their legal settlements.
The House and Senate both passed bills to beef up the policy, but their bills were pretty far apart. The heart of the problem was that the House wanted tougher punishments and more transparency when lawmakers sexually harass or discriminate against their staff, while Senate Republicans, for some reason, insisted on watering down those provisions.
There were three sticking points in the end, all of which were resolved Wednesday.
The first problem was that the House bill required lawmakers to pay out-of-pocket for all settlements relating to sexual harassment and discrimination, while the Senate bill let lawmakers continue to use taxpayer money. The final language will require lawmakers to pay out-of-pocket for harassment and retaliation settlements, but not for discrimination settlements.
The second problem was that the House bill provided legal representation to all accusers, but the Senate bill did not. The final language will allow House staff to have access to House counsel, but Senate staff will not have similar access.
The third problem was that the House bill required an impartial investigation at the front end of a probe, while the Senate bill did not. The final language axes that provision.
Speier said she is already working with House Republicans and Democrats to take action in the next Congress to restore provisions in the House bill that were taken out by the Senate, namely relating to discrimination settlements and having a front-end investigation. The Senate may not want those rules, but the House can pass a resolution putting those rules in place for itself.
“We believe this is a strong step towards creating a new standard in Congress that will set a positive example in our nation,” reads the statement by Speier and other House lawmakers, “but there is still more work to be done.”
Here’s a look at some of the final bill’s other provisions, via a press release from Senate negotiators Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.):
The bill comes after a series of embarrassing resignations and early retirements by male lawmakers. Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) resigned in April after allegedly telling a female aide he had “wet dreams” about another female aide who was welcome to “show her nipples.” A few weeks later, Rep. Pat Meehan (R-Pa.) resigned after pursuing a female aide he called his “soul mate.” Both spent tens of thousands of dollars in taxpayer money to settle sexual harassment lawsuits against them.
That was after Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) resigned in December for asking two female aides to bear his children.
And after Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) retired early after multiple former female staffers accused him of inappropriate touching and sexual propositions.
And after Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) resigned after eight women accused him of sexual misconduct.
And after Rep. Ruben Kihuen (D-Nev.) announced he wouldn’t seek re-election after two women accused him of propositioning them for sex, touching them inappropriately and/or sending lewd text messages.
It should come as no surprise, then, that four out of 10 female congressional aides say sexual harassment is a problem, per a 2016 CQ Roll Call survey. One in six staffers said they had been personally victimized.