Both the Senate and the House of Representatives passed legislation Thursday to reform how sexual harassment is handled on Capitol Hill – including holding lawmakers liable for paying for settlements out of their own pockets.
The bill, long stalled by talks and disagreements between the House and Senate, overhauls the law that dictates how sexual harassment claims are overseen.
After passing unanimously in the Senate in the morning and in the House in the afternoon, the bill now heads to President Donald Trump for his signature.
The passage comes more than a year since the #MeToo wave hit Capitol Hill. The bill will reconcile the House- and Senate-passed versions into one bill that overhauls the Congressional Accountability Act. Had Congress been unable to reach an agreement before the end of the year, each chamber’s legislation would have expired.
The pending legislation will require lawmakers to pay for sexual harassment settlements themselves – as opposed to using taxpayers dollars, as has historically been the case.
The bill would also streamline the complaint-filing process by eliminating the arduous process that included a 30-day counseling period, a 30-day mediation period and a 30-day “cooling off period” a staffer had to previously go through before they could even officially make a complaint.
According to the text of the bill, settlements would be handled in a new electronic system and make the names of any personally liable members public.
However, the measure holds individual members personally liable for harassment and retaliation settlements only, not gender discrimination or pregnancy discrimination claims. So members, if held personally liable for discrimination, could still dip into US Treasury funds to settle those kinds of claims.
At a press conference Thursday afternoon, House bill sponsor Rep. Jackie Speier stressed that the bill’s passage heralded a new era of accountability for harassers who had previously exploited Congress’ lax rules.
“My message is quite simple – time’s up,” the California Democrat said. “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. There will be transparency and members will be held accountable.”
During its #MeToo reckoning, Congress came under fire for having harassment laws that allowed members to pay settlements with taxpayer dollars and did not make public members names who made settlements.
Alabama Rep. Bradley Byrne, the bill’s Republican co-sponsor, praised the legislation as an example of Congress leading by example.
“I believe we are setting an example,” he said. “And it’s important for the leaders of this country to set an example, and what an example we have set with this legislation.”