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Clock Ticks Down on Sexual Harassment Proposals for Congress

#MeToo provided momentum earlier in the year, but that has stalled

Congress is running out of time to enact changes to how sexual harassment is handled in their own workplace. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Congress is running out of time to enact changes to how sexual harassment is handled in their own workplace. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Congress is running out of time to make changes to how sexual harassment is handled in its own workplace, as negotiations between House and Senate proposals drag on and legislative days dry up.

Leaders in both chambers say they want to finish reconciling the legislation and move toward implementing change before the lame-duck session is over, but it’s unclear if that will happen.

“We are trying really hard to get that done this year,” Senate Rules and Administration Chairman Roy Blunt of Missouri said last week. “I think it would be helpful for every new member of Congress and every person returning to the Congress to understand what the guidelines should be and hopefully what the guidelines will be if we can get this done.”

House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer said he talked Sunday to Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar, the ranking Democrat on Senate Rules, about congressional anti-sexual harassment legislation, and he is hopeful that Congress can get a reconciled bill passed before it adjourns for the year.

Early action

There was momentum earlier this year when a series of high-profile resignations over sexual harassment claims spurred both chambers to move to tackle the open secret of workplace harassment on Capitol Hill.

In February, the House passed a bill to overhaul the process for investigating and resolving complaints by congressional employees regarding sexual harassment. The chamber also adopted sweeping changes to its internal rules intended to protect staffers.

The Senate took action in May, passing a separate bill targeting the system in place to deal with harassment allegations.

Key differences

Both proposals responded to growing outrage over taxpayer-funded settlements paid to victims of harassment by members of Congress. But the bills diverged on the scope of liability for lawmakers.

Sticking points that emerged over the summer remain intractable as the year comes to a close.

The House bill includes an expansive view of cases under which a member would be personally liable. The Senate version tightens the liability, making members responsible for all settlements related to their own sexual misconduct but not for other issues such as discrimination.

Blunt said it was important for senators and senators-elect to “understand their own personal liability for their own personal conduct.”

The Senate bill would also cap lawmaker liability at $300,000 and would only hold members liable for “compensatory damages.”

“I think both Sen. Klobuchar and I, and [Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell] would like to see this resolved before the end of the year, but in a way where member liability is clearly understood, and clearly involves the member rather than extend the liability that may involve the Senate but maybe the senator’s not involved in,” Blunt told Roll Call. 

House negotiators and aides have said they are unwilling to accept the Senate liability framework, viewing it as a weaker or watered-down version.

The House bill would require lawmakers to pay out of pocket for any sexual harassment or discrimination settlements, while the Senate plan would require lawmakers to pay only for settlements related to harassment, not discrimination — which often constitutes the bulk of misconduct claims.

Another outstanding issue is what entity would have oversight of the settlements process. The Senate Ethics Committee, which is known to be slow-moving and sometimes inactive, would take center stage under that chamber’s proposal. The House and Senate Ethics panels would be charged with review and approval of reimbursements for settlements when a lawmaker is the perpetrator. Lawmakers would be policing their peers as well as deciding the fate of their colleagues and whether their behavior qualifies as harassment.

The House proposal would put the independent and newly created Office of Employee Advocacy at the helm.

Victims under the Senate version would not get to retain employer-provided legal counsel, as the House bill would allow. The Senate proposal would instead provide “confidential advisers” who would be forbidden from providing legal advice.

What next

Progress towards compromise on these issues is not evident, despite optimistic talk from leaders.

On Tuesday, Hoyer was willing to admit that a year-end solution may elude lawmakers.

“If we don’t, it’s going to be very early on our agenda next year,” the Maryland Democrat said.

If a solution isn’t reached, the proposals passed by the House and Senate will each expire. Lawmakers would have to start again, introducing new legislation for the 116th Congress.

Niels Lesniewski and Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report. 

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