At Last, Congress Overhauls Its Awful Sexual Harassment Policy

Sleazy lawmakers can't spend your money on settlements anymore and Capitol Hill aides will get real protections.
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) has been a leading advocate for making Congress deal with its Me Too problem.
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) has been a leading advocate for making Congress deal with its Me Too problem.

WASHINGTON ― Congress passed a bill Thursday to overhaul its embarrassingly bad policy on sexual harassment, an update that will finally require lawmakers to pay out of pocket ― instead of spending your money ― when they get sued by staff for groping or other lewd behavior.

It took months of negotiations, but House and Senate lawmakers struck a deal Wednesday on what, exactly, the new Capitol Hill policy should look like. The final bill sailed through the House and Senate on Thursday by unanimous consent. All that’s left now is for President Donald Trump to sign it. (The irony is not lost on this reporter.)

The new law “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.), Robert Brady (D-Pa.), Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.) and Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), top House negotiators on the bill.

Lawmakers agreed to get rid of some outdated provisions. Under the current law, which has been in place since 1995, 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. They won’t have to do any of that anymore.

The new policy will also hold members of Congress personally financially liable for sexual harassment settlements. This is a direct response to problems created by former Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas), for example, who abruptly resigned in April to avoid the fallout over his sexual harassment scandal. He spent $84,000 in taxpayer money to settle a lawsuit by one of his former aides, Lauren Greene, who alleged that he said he had “wet dreams” about her and said she was welcome to “show her nipples whenever she wanted.”

Farenthold initially promised to repay the $84,000, but he quit Congress instead and never did. The new law is not retroactive, so there’s no reason Farenthold has to repay the money other than being publicly shamed for not doing so.

Part of the reason it took Congress all year to get this done is because the House wanted tougher punishments and more transparency when lawmakers sexually harass or discriminate against staff, while Senate Republicans, for some reason, insisted on watering down those provisions.

House lawmakers, for example, wanted to make members of Congress pay out of pocket for discrimination settlements too and wanted to provide legal representation to all accusers. But the Senate, which finally caved on requiring lawmakers to pay out of pocket for sexual harassment settlements, rejected both of those provisions and neither ended up in the final bill.

Why did Senate Republicans push to water down a bill that targets lawmakers who sexually harass and discriminate against thei
Why did Senate Republicans push to water down a bill that targets lawmakers who sexually harass and discriminate against their staff?

Speier is already promising to work with House Republicans and Democrats in the next Congress to restore those provisions for the House. The Senate may not want those rules, but the House can pass a resolution putting those rules in place for itself.

“Taxpayers should never foot the bill for Members’ misconduct,” Speier told HuffPost in a statement. “And having spoken with many survivors, the process of going up against a lawyer for the institution and the harasser was as traumatic, if not more traumatic, than the abuse they suffered. … We are committed to offering victims the tools they need to pursue justice. We will address these issues in the next Congress.”

Here’s the final draft text of the sexual harassment bill, if you feel like reading all 79 pages yourself:

It’s about time the Me Too movement hit Congress. 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.

And in case you missed the recent series of embarrassing early retirements and resignations by sleazy members of Congress, you can read about them here and here and here and here and here and here.