House approves mandatory sexual harassment training, some pushing broader reforms

Congress responds to sexual harassment

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Legislation requiring sexual harassment prevention training for members of Congress and their staff passed the House Wednesday afternoon but some lawmakers say much more needs to be done to address the problem on Capitol Hill.

Some members say significant changes are needed in the complaint process which they say lacks transparency and can be long and confusing.

“It’s an important first step as we deal with this problem,’’ House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., said before the resolution requiring training passed on a voice vote. “We’re taking issues of sexual harassment very seriously... But we need to have a comprehensive review of all of these things so that we can have a comprehensive response.”

The effort on Capitol Hill comesamid a wave of accusations of sexual harassment against Hollywood power players, newsroom leaders and national politicians.

Congress has been rocked by allegations of harassment by Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., and Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., and the suggestion by some lawmakers that there are other harassers among them.

The Senate approved a resolution earlier this month to require the training.

The House resolution would require lawmakers, staff, interns and fellows to get harassment training each Congress. It would also require congressional offices to post a statement of employee rights under the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act.

That law requires Congress and the legislative branch to comply with workplace laws enforced in the private sector.

At the same time the training legislation was being debated and approved, a bipartisan group of House members announced plans to file legislation that would require the disclosure of the names of any Congress members who use taxpayer funds to settle sexual harassment or sexual assault claims.

The legislation also dictates that any Congress member who has used a special Treasury Department fund to settle a sexual harassment claim must reimburse the government, with interest. It also would prohibit the use of such funds to settle future sexual harassment claims.

In addition, the House Administration Committee will hold a hearing next Thursday to discuss updating the Congressional Accountability Act and reforming the complaint process for victims on Capitol Hill among other subjects.

The panel held a hearing earlier in the month on sexual harassment policies in the House.

Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., who testified at the hearing, said there needs to be reforms of the Congressional Accountability Act and the Office of Compliance. 

“We cannot tolerate any discrimination or harassment in the workplace and we cannot have a system that protects offenders,” Byrne said. 

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and other lawmakers, including Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Ryan Costello, R-Pa., and Ann McLane Kuster, D-N.H., are championing a broader, bipartisan reform bill, called the Member and Employee Training and Oversight on Congress Act.

Now, harassment complaints are filed with the Office of Compliance. The office was created in 1995 to enforce workforce protections in Congress, which had previously been exempt from most labor and accessibility laws.

Some lawmakers say the complaint process doesn’t do enough to protect the victim and some have complained about feeling harassed during the mediation process and required to sign a nondisclosure agreement.

The bill allows interns and fellows to file complaints. Currently, only staffers can file a complaint.

It also extends “whistleblower’’ protections to the legislative branch, which includes congressional staffers.

If a member of Congress settles a claim, that member would have to repay the cost from his or her personal funds. Currently, those settlements are paid from the U.S. Treasury.

And the new legislation would require that if there is a settlement, the name of the office where the incident occurred and the amount would be posted on a public website. The accuser and the harasser would not be named.

Currently, the Office of Compliance reports annually to Congress the number of complaints and the amount, but doesn't name the lawmaker's office.

Insomecases, a non-disclosure agreement is signed when the complaint is settled.

Susan Tsui Gundmann, executive director of the Office of Compliance, said those agreements are not required by her office but handled between the parties.

Some lawmakers said there may be some push back to the bill in part because of the disclosure requirements and concerns that victims may not want to be identified.

Harper said he hasn’t had a settlement come across his desk since he became chairman of the committee in January. Any settlement has to be signed off by the committee chairman and the ranking member.

Harper said in the last 20 years there have been more than 260 congressional settlements costing $17 million. Those settlements, however, included offices other than Congress and claimsother than sexual harassment, such as racial discrimination and ageism. 

“What we don’t have and we’re trying to get … is a breakdown on how many of those claims are member sexual harassment’’ claims, Harper said.

Ryan said he’s waiting for the committee to review the entire process.

Some Democrats, however, complain reform efforts have been too slow.

“We need to get moving on this and set an example for the rest of the country,’’ Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, said on CNN. 

Some lawmakers, meanwhile, have already stepped up training.

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