Politics

Lawmakers in last-minute push to make members of Congress liable for sexual harassment

Senator Amy Klobuchar
Star Tribune via Associated Press
Senator Amy Klobuchar

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers are scrambling to finish a long-promised deal to tackle sexual harassment on Capitol Hill — over a year after a series of harassment scandals forced several members of Congress to resign.

“We are much closer than we’ve ever been, and we are aiming to be in the end-of-the-year [legislative] package,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, a leader on the Senate’s version of the bill, last week. “People really want to get it done.”

Under the current rules, members of Congress have been able to use taxpayer dollars for settlements stemming from sexual harassment allegations. The House unanimously passed legislation in February that would hold members personally liable for both harassment and discrimination claims, along with other changes to the reporting process. The Senate passed their own, less stringent version in May, and the two chambers have been mired in negotiations ever since.

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Now, in the final days of the session, if both chambers don’t agree, they must start the process over in the next Congress.

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While the House bill seeks to hold members liable for both sexual harassment and discrimination settlements, the Senate’s more limited proposal limits liability to harassment claims.

“Their tack has been, well, you know, this is not a Senate problem. This is a House problem,” said Representative Jackie Speier, a Democrat from California. “I would disagree with their assessment, and I think they will find out in short order that the Senate can be just as vulnerable.”

The House, which will be controlled by Democrats come January, may consider a bill in the new year to enforce the tougher anti-discrimination provisions just for that chamber, not the Senate, Speier said. She told the Globe the Senate has indicated it would support the bill so long as it only applied to the House.

“The reason we’ll be willing to accept something less than we passed is that we then can pass bills ourselves that apply to the House,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said at her Thursday press conference. “And I think that would put some pressure on the Senate to do the same.”

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A report issued by the Committee on House Administration in early 2018 revealed that nearly $300,000 of taxpayer money has been spent settling sexual harassment or sex discrimination claims against member-led offices since 2003.

The calls for reform began late last year after sexual harassment allegations against sitting lawmakers began to surface.

In December 2017, it was reported that then-US Representative Blake Farenthold, a Texas Republican, had used taxpayer money to pay an $84,000 settlement after being accused of sexual harassment by a former aide. Representative John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, resigned after news broke that a former staffer who accused him of harassment was reportedly paid a $27,000 settlement using his congressional office budget. Other revelations included one representative who reportedly asked his female staffers to bear his child as a surrogate, and another who called an aide his “soul mate.”

The blowback was swift — at the time. But after missing several self-imposed deadlines to come up with a final bill, this may be the last chance for Congress to show it has made progress on the MeToo front as the movement hits its one-year mark.

“I think it’s fair to expect other workplaces to look to Congress as a model and as a leader, and instead they’re kind of lagging behind,” said Kristin Nicholson, cofounder of Congress Too, a group of 1,500 former staffers seeking changes that would make the reporting process easier to navigate.

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Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York, said she wasn’t sure what was causing the delays.

“You’d have to ask Republican leadership,” she told reporters last week.

When asked for comment, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office referred to his comments at a November press conference, when he said the chamber was working on getting something passed before the end of the year. Still, with a host of other issues competing for a spot on the agenda — criminal justice, the border wall, Saudi Arabia, and a spending deal — it’s unclear what will take priority.

Despite the drawn-out and last-minute negotiations, members of both the House and Senate expressed optimism that they will reach a compromise before the holiday break.

“We’re trying hard to come up with something that truly is workable and will be easily and fully understood by everybody involved,” said Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, who worked on the bill with Klobuchar.

Speier said that they have come to “a meeting of the minds” on about 90 percent of the issues.

“It’s a great example to the American people that yes, Congress can work together, that the Republicans and the Democrats can find common ground,” Speier said. “I hope it’s cited as one of those examples in the future.”