Senate Passes Sexual Harassment Bill

By Allen Smith, J.D. May 23, 2018
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​Less than a week after Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., called on the Senate to stop "dragging its feet on sexual harassment reform," changes may be coming. The Senate passed a bill on May 24 to overhaul congressional sexual harassment complaint procedures. But reform advocates in the House of Representatives have criticized the Senate version as weak, Politico reports.

We've gathered articles from SHRM Online and other respected media outlets on the legislation.

Current System Accused of Silencing Victims

Mandatory counseling, mediation and a "cooling-off" period discourage Capitol Hill staffers from suing senators, representatives and co-workers for harassment, according to staffers for Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif. Currently, an employee must go through an intake counseling process that can last 30 days. That's followed by 30 days of mediation and a 30-day cooling-off period before she or he can file a lawsuit. All parties are bound by an agreement to keep all communications prepared for mediation confidential. The Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 Reform Act would eliminate forced mediation, allow victims to speak publicly about their cases and require members of Congress found personally liable for harassment to pay settlements out of their own pockets. The Society for Human Resource Management is working with the National Conference of State Legislatures to provide training to lawmakers and staff on workplace harassment and resolution.
(SHRM Online)

House-Passed Bill

The House of Representatives on Feb. 6 passed the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 Reform Act. It also passed changes to its rules to protect harassment victims on Capitol Hill. Four changes took effect immediately in the House:

  • Members of Congress may not have sexual relations with staffers.
  • A new office has been established to represent staffers who put forward harassment complaints.
  • Each House member must adopt internal anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies.
  • House lawmakers must certify that they are not using their office budgets to settle claims.
(SHRM Online)

Gillibrand Pressed for Action Last Week

On May 17, Gillibrand noted that it had been 100 days since the House of Representatives unanimously passed legislation to end taxpayer-funded settlements in sexual harassment and discrimination cases committed by members of Congress. She called on the Senate to enact the same reforms to congressional complaint procedures that the House unanimously passed. "Once again, a problem is staring us right in the face and we are looking the other way," Gillibrand said on the Senate floor. "We have waited 100 days and we should not have to wait any longer, so I urge my colleagues to do the right thing now to support this bill, fix this system here in Congress that is failing … on this issue of sexual harassment. This one is as easy as it gets. So let's have a vote. And let's pass it."
(CNN and Gillibrand's website)

Blunt Wanted Bill Passed This Week

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., called for enactment of the bill he and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., introduced in the Senate on May 23 to reform the process Capitol Hill workers use to pursue sexual harassment claims. In addition to the changes already mentioned, their bill would require public reporting of awards and settlements and would extend protections to unpaid interns. Blunt pressed for passage of the bill this week.
(Roll Call and Blunt's website)

Differences Between House and Senate Bills

One major difference between the House and Senate bills is the language used to describe senators' and representatives' liability for sexual harassment and discrimination claims. The Senate's version clarifies when lawmakers would be required to pay for settlements. Senate lawyers felt the House bill left lawmakers potentially vulnerable to having to use their personal funds if a staff member's wrongdoing led to a settlement. The Senate bill would specify that if a staff member is responsible, the settlement would still come out of the U.S. Treasury fund. Senators and representatives would have to pay for all settlements if they were the harassers. A legislator's liability would be capped at $300,000. The Senate's version still needs to pass the House of Representatives.
(CNN and Washington Post)

House Reformers Criticize Senate Version

Passage in the House of Representatives is not a done deal. The Senate would require payment by legislators only for settlements related to harassment, not discrimination, and victims would have to opt out of mediation. Some House members have voiced concerns about the Senate version. Speier said, "I look forward to going to conference because it [the Senate bill] appears to shift the power back to the institution instead of the victims." It's too soon to tell whether the criticisms could hurt the Senate bill's chances in the House.
(Politico)

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