House passes Speier bill to crack down on sexual harassment in Congress

The House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to crack down on sexual harassment in Congress with legislation so strict that the Bay Area congresswoman who instigated the effort declared that the problem is fixed. 

“This is a problem that has plagued this institution for generations, and it's over,” said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo County. 

The key to the bill, she said, is a requirement that any member of Congress who settles a sexual harassment claim personally pay the amount in full within 90 days. 

“If they can't do that,'' Speier said, “we will garnish their wages, we will garnish their Thrift Savings Plans, and we will garnish their Social Security. It's going to impact pocketbooks of members directly. We are not messing around.'' 

The measure, which passed by voice vote, comes during a national awakening of sexual harassment as a problem following scandals that have shaken Hollywood, the corporate world and Washington. 

The groundswell of support for dealing with the issue in Congress developed when Speier took to YouTube in October to recount her own encounter with harassment years ago as a young congressional aide and launched a #MeTooCongress campaign to encourage other congressional staff members to go public with their stories. Eight members of Congress have subsequently resigned or retired. 

The legislation would overhaul an antiquated process in Congress that provides legal counsel for members accused of sexual harassment but not for those making the claims. The process further protects members by forcing taxpayers to pay any monetary settlement stemming from a harassment claim and forces alleged victims into mediation with the person they're accusing. In the end, the whole thing is kept secret. 

The House Administration Committee published records showing that taxpayers have paid roughly $200,000 in sexual harassment and discrimination settlements and awards against members of Congress over the last two decades. 

The legislation still has to pass the Senate, but a separate resolution governing House procedures will take effect immediately. 

That measure prohibits sexual relationships between members and “any employee of the House that works under (their) supervision.” It also bans unwanted sexual advances and prohibits members from using their taxpayer-paid office funds to cover harassment claims. It provides legal counsel to victims, sets up an employee advocacy office, and requires every House member to develop a workplace policy on sexual harassment and discrimination for his or her staff. 

The resolution holds members financially liable for their conduct, and requires publication of any awards or settlements that come out of either the court system or processes within the House itself. The House, which imposed its first requirement for sexual harassment training late last year, must conduct a staff survey every two years to assess the workplace climate. 

Speier's bill to overhaul the process for handling claims and the related resolution banning sexual relations passed under a procedure used for legislation that has support from at least two-thirds of the chamber. A companion bill has been introduced in the Senate, and although it has not been scheduled for a vote, Speier is confident of its prospects. 

When Speier began her quest for reform in 2014, a modest effort to require mandatory sexual harassment training, she said House Republican leaders shut it down. 

“It was deader than a doornail in 2014,” Speier said. But with the revelations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and others last fall, Speier said the #MeToo movement took off. “I decided if ever there was a time, this is the time.”

When Speier introduced her far-reaching legislation to address sexual harassment in Congress this go around, GOP leaders embraced it. Speier had nothing but praise for the GOP committee chairs who shepherded the process. Among them was Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., an employment lawyer for 30 years before joining the House, who said he was shocked by the way Congress was handling workplace issues. 

In arguing for her legislation on the House floor, Speier said the issue created “a rare and crucial moment of bipartisanship. This is the way you can do it. Men and women, Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, coming together to make this place better.”

Members of Congress who have resigned amid sexual harassment allegations include Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich. and Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz. Others dropped their re-election bids, including Reps. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, Ruben Kihuen, D-Nev., and Patrick Meehan, R-Pa., who until his removal had sat on the House Ethics Committee. 

“What has given me the greatest pleasure is to walk the halls of the Capitol and to have women look at me and break out in a big grin or smile,” Speier said. “It’s almost like they’re saying, ‘Thank you.’ ”

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