US House passes bill to address sexual harassment in Congress
Washington: The US House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a legislation that would reform the way lawmakers’ offices handle sexual harassment cases, the media reported.
The bill passed on Tuesday evening, born in the wake of the #MeToo movement, would overhaul aspects of the Congressional Accountability Act, the decades-old law that put in place the system through which sexual harassment, discrimination and other workplace-related claims on Capitol Hill are handled, reports CNN.
It is an an attempt to make the once-secretive system less arduous for victims. The legislation would streamline the process a House of Representatives employee must go through to report a workplace claim, including eliminating the mandatory 30-day counselling and mediation period.
It would also require members of Congress to repay the Treasury fund controlled by the Office of Compliance within 90 days, including members who leave office, and would require that each claim in which an award or settlement is made be referred to the House Ethics Committee — something that is currently not done automatically.
“From members to staff, no one should feel unsafe serving in Congress,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said in a statement on Tuesday.
“We promised we would deliver real change to the system, and today we are.”
The legislation had been worked on for months by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Representatives Gregg Harper of Mississippi and Robert Brady of Pennsylvania, the top Republican and Democrat on the House Administration Committee, reports CNN.
“We changed the system so we protect the victim and not the perpetrator,” Brady said on the House floor on Tuesday. “This is long overdue.”
“Thanks to the ‘Me Too’ movement, the American public has made it clear that they have had enough. They expect Congress to lead and for once, we are,” said Representative Jackie Speier (California), also an author of the legislation.
Tuesday’s legislation was a direct response to a series of allegations, resignations and retirements that have rocked Capitol Hill in recent months regarding lawmakers from both parties making inappropriate comments or sexually harassing female staffers.
Former Representative John Conyers Jr. resigned last year after BuzzFeed reported that a female former aide who accused him of sexual harassment received about $27,000 in installments from his office budget, reports The Hill magazine.
Similarly, Representative Patrick Meehan decided not to run for re-election after The New York Times reported that his office paid out a settlement of an undisclosed amount to a former female aide who accused him of retaliating when she rebuffed his advances.
Another Republican lawmaker, Representative Blake Farenthold, has also come under scrutiny for an $84,000 settlement paid from the Treasury Department fund after a female former aide accused him of sexual harassment.
Farenthold, who has since decided not to run for re-election, initially pledged to take out a personal loan to reimburse taxpayers.