House Releases Bill to Reform Sexual Harassment Claims in Congress

U.S. Capitol
Getty Images

Lawmakers on Thursday unveiled a new bipartisan bill in the House to overhaul how Congress adjudicates sexual harassment claims against its members.

The Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 Reform Act has bipartisan support and mandates members to pay their own settlement costs in sexual harassment cases, NBC News reports. Republican Rep. Gregg Harper (Miss.), who helped write the legislation with Democratic Rep. Bob Brady (Pa.), is head of the House Administration Committee, and he said the goal of the legislation is to fundamentally change the culture on Capitol Hill.

"What we want to do is create—and I think we're seeing it already—a sea change in the culture in the members and the staff," Harper told NBC News.

"Those who have gone through the process have felt a little overwhelmed," Harper added. "Now you've got somebody who's got your interest at heart."

The bill requires lawmakers to reimburse the U.S. Treasury within 90 days of a sexual harassment settlement, and it allows their wages to be garnished if they do not. Members' retirement accounts and social security would be garnished if necessary, and they are also required to use a certification process to demonstrate that they are not settling with money from their congressional office accounts.

"We're going to wipe this kind of behavior out from a financial standpoint if nothing else," Rep. Jackie Speier (D., Calif.) said.

Speier's own proposal was part of three months of work in the House to craft the legislation.

Brady, ranking member of the Administration Committee, said they listened to criticism of the status quo.

"This bipartisan proposal is the result of months listening and learning about how we can improve the process. These reforms focus on justice for the victim instead of protecting the offender and they are long overdue," Brady said in a statement in which he gave credit to Speier.

"It's not every day that a Mississippi Republican and a California Democrat can find common ground. I'm happy we were able to get this done," Brady added.

Members of the Administration Committee and House Ethics Committee issued a joint statement Thursday outlining the bill's protections for employees.

"Ultimately, these reforms will strengthen protections for individuals and needed accountability in the workplace," they said. "We believe the proposed comprehensive reforms will pave the way for a safer and more productive congressional workplace."

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) has not commented on the legislation yet, but in the past he has expressed support for the work being done on the matter.

The new bills' unveiling comes after recent news reports revealed that multiple lawmakers used taxpayer money from their own personal congressional accounts to pay sexual harassment settlements.

Former Democratic Rep. John Conyers (Mich.), for example, paid a former female staffer over $27,000 from his personal account in 2015 to settle her complaints of sexual harassment against him. Conyers announced his retirement from Congress last month.

About $199,000 has been paid out from the U.S. Treasury since 2003 in sexual harassment claims in the House, NBC News noted.

Multiple members of Congress from both chambers and both parties have been accused of sexual misconduct in recent months, including Reps. Alcee Hastings (D., Fla.), Ruben Kihuen (D., Nev.), and Blake Farenthold (R., Texas), among others; and Sen. Al Franken (D., Minn.), who resigned earlier this month after several women accused him of groping them without their consent.