Congress unanimously passed a sexual harassment bill
Both the Senate and the House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill that would overhaul how Congress handles sexual harassment claims. The legislation, which would hold congresspeople personally liable for paying for settlements related to harassment rather than the taxpayer, now awaits President Trump’s signature.
"This is a bill that fundamentally changes the way sexual harassment cases are handled in the Senate and in the House," said Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), one of the sponsors of the legislation. "The process we have will now protect victims of harassment instead of protecting politicians."
Under current law, if legislators who are accused of engaging in sexual harassment opt to settle with their accuser, the settlement is paid with taxpayer money from the U.S. Treasury. The money paid out to alleged victims of sexual harassment in the past two decades is not insignificant; The sum is about $300,000, according to data published by The Washington Post in January.
Over the course of 2018, both the House and the Senate put forward bills to change how accusations of sexual harassment are handled in both bodies, but the legislation stalled due to disagreements between the chambers about the exact parameters of the new law. While the House’s original legislation proposed that lawmakers pay settlements costs in both harassment and discrimination cases, the Senate bill only mandated payment out of pocket in instances of alleged harassment. Thursday’s vote was ultimately made possible by a compromise negotiated on Wednesday; legislators agreed to adopt the Senate’s approach in only mandating personal liability in instances of harassment, and the bill does not hold lawmakers responsible for paying settlement costs out of pocket in cases of alleged discrimination.
The bill passed last week also requires awards and settlements related to harassment claims to be publicly reported, including the name of the congressperson accused of misconduct, whereas before all parties were bound by confidentiality statements. In addition, complainants will no longer be forced to undergo counseling and mediation with the alleged perpetrator before being permitted to file an official complaint, as is currently mandated under the law.
The push for this legislation originally began after several legislators were publicly accused of sexual harassment or violence. Last December, Rep. John Conyers opted to resign after he several women accused him of misconduct. Marion Brown, a woman who accused Conyers of misconduct, received a settlement of $27,000 paid by public funds, she told NBC’s "Today." Conyers “violated my body,” she said, and “touched me in different ways, and it was very uncomfortable and very unprofessional." Reps. Blake Farenthold, Patrick Meehan, Ruben Kihuen, Alcee Hastings, Trent Franks, and Al Franken have also faced allegations of wrongdoing.
When she spoke to the "Today" show, Brown said she had broken the confidentiality clause in her settlement because she wanted to help build a world in which her granddaughter would not be subjected to sexism and gender inequality. “I thought it was worth the risk to stand up for all the women in the workforce that are voiceless," she said. Once the bill is signed into law, women like Brown won’t be bound by secrecy, and legislators won’t able to pass the bill onto the taxpayer when they’re accused of wrongdoing.
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