House of Representatives Clears the Way for Harassment Claims

Staffers had faced a maze of red tape and delays before they could file lawsuits

By Allen Smith, J.D. Feb 8, 2018
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​The House of Representatives passed a bill on Feb. 6 to make it easier for congressional staffers to file harassment claims. The chamber also passed changes to its rules to protect harassment victims on Capitol Hill. We've gathered articles from SHRM Online and other respected media outlets on the proposed legislation and rules change.

Cumbersome Process

Currently, an employee with a harassment complaint must go through an intake legal counseling process with the compliance office for up to 30 days. Then, the staffer must go through 30 days of mandatory mediation, which may be extended. After that, there's a 30-day "cooling off period" before the staffer may sue.

All parties are bound by an agreement to keep confidential all communications, statements and documents that are prepared for mediation.

For the victim, it feels like "you against Congress and you're not going to win this fight," so the victim settles, said a spokeswoman for Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif. Then the government, not the accused member or staffer, pays the victim, so there's no accountability, she added. (SHRM Online)

[SHRM members-only HR Q&A: What are the different types of sexual harassment?]

Immediate and Proposed Changes

Four changes take effect immediately in the House:

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

If the bill passes the Senate and is signed by President Donald Trump, legislators would have to pay harassment claims out of their own pockets, not with taxpayer money; legal counseling and mediation would not be required; the cooling-off period would be scrapped; and victims who settle would not have to sign nondisclosure agreements. (Chicago Tribune)

Numerous Lawmakers Have Left Office After Allegations

Many legislators have stepped down due to harassment complaints. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., resigned in January following allegations from several women that he groped them and one woman that he forcibly kissed her. Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., resigned after a member of his staff said he had asked her to carry his child in exchange for $5 million. Among other examples, Rep. Patrick Meehan, R-Pa., announced he would not seek re-election in light of news reports that he settled a harassment claim with a former aide. (The Washington Post)

Ethics Office Constrained?

One provision in the bill has been criticized as a threat to accountability. Complaints would be referred only to the House Ethics Committee for review; the Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent watchdog agency, would not be able to investigate on its own. The intent is to streamline the review process. A Public Citizen lobbyist said the ethics office "must remain a strong, independent check within Congress and we remain committed to fighting against any weakening of the office's power." (The Hill and Politico)

Bill's Supporters Answer Critics

The bill's co-sponsors said the Office of Congressional Ethics' role would be limited because it would be duplicative to have the office involved. Each claim in which an award or settlement is made would be referred to the House Ethics Committee. The Office of Congressional Ethics has no subpoena authority and can't do any investigation, so the watchdog agency would have to refer any award or settlement to the Ethics Committee anyway, Speier said. (CNN

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