Congress passes bill to make members pay for sexual harassment claims
After it was revealed that members of Congress were allowed to tap public money to pay off women who had been sexually harassed, embarrassed lawmakers from both parties began working on legislation that would force members to pay off sexual harassment claims on their own dime.
Yesterday, by voice vote, the House and Senate approved a measure that would cap court damages at $300,000, but there would be no limit on private settlements.
"Time is finally up for members of Congress who think that they can sexually harass and get away with it. They will no longer be able to slink away with no one knowing that they have harassed. ... They will pay back the U.S. Treasury," one of the House co-sponsors, Representative Jackie Speier, a Democrat, told reporters.
"We want to thank 1,500 former staff members of Congress who wrote a letter to us who made the case all too clear, that sexual harassment in Congress was a huge problem," she said.
Congress acted more than a year after the #Metoo battle began against sexual harassment of women. Hundreds of high-profile men around the world have been fired or have resigned from their jobs in politics, media, entertainment and business after facing allegations of sexually harassing or assaulting women and men.
Over the past year, several U.S. lawmakers have left office following sexual misconduct allegations, including Democratic Senator Al Franken, Democratic Representative John Conyers, and Republican Representatives Trent Franks and Blake Farenthold. They all denied the allegations.
Speier has been a driving force behind the legislation, having been a victim of harassment when she was employed on Capitol Hill.
The legislation says Congress must also regularly report and publish settlements, a departure from past practices in which settlements were secret.
Farenthold left Congress in April, several months after Politico reported he settled a sexual harassment lawsuit with taxpayer funds. He denied wrongdoing, but pledged to pay the money back.
The bill takes other steps to strengthen worker protections for congressional employees, such as eliminating month-long periods for "counseling" and "cooling off" that were required of employees who made harassment claims.
Will this help change the culture on the Hill, where women are routinely harassed and even assaulted? It will certainly make it harder for members and their top staff to hide their harassment. It will also make members more careful.
But while dozens of women have been victims, rocking the boat by accusing a member is still a career-ender. It's a horrible choice, to be sure, and in a perfect world, women shouldn't have to make it.
But at least now the public won't be paying for a member's indiscretions.