WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate negotiators on Wednesday released a bipartisan bill to overhaul the system for handling sexual harassment complaints on Capitol Hill.
The bill eliminates mandatory counseling, mediation and the “cooling off” period victims are currently required to wait before filing a lawsuit or requesting an administrative hearing. It also requires members of Congress to repay the Treasury for harassment and discrimination settlements, including members who have left office. If a member doesn’t pay back the settlement amount, the bill gives congressional administrative committees the authority to establish a plan to withhold the member’s pay.
More than $300,000 in taxpayer funds has been paid over the past 15 years to settle such claims.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., announced the bill on Wednesday, months after the House unanimously passed its own version of the anti-harassment legislation.
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Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said in a joint statement that they expect the bill “to pass the Senate in short order.”
“Here, as everywhere, employees must be free to work without fearing they’ll be the victim of harassment,” McConnell said. “So a consensus emerged — among members in both the House and the Senate — that we should do more to hold people accountable, protect staff and help prevent harassment in the first place.”
The bill would require that settlements automatically be referred to the congressional ethics committees, which would review all agreements and claims alleging harassment by members to determine whether an investigation is necessary. The committees would also be given access to hearing decisions.
Like the House bill, the Senate legislation allows for staffers who allege harassment to work remotely and calls for greater transparency by publishing a list of member offices involved in settlements, along with the settlement amount.
Late last year, Congress began reforming its method for handling sexual harassment complaints after finding itself squarely at the center of the growing #MeToo movement.
In a matter of months, more than a half-dozen members were forced to resign amid allegations of sexual misconduct, and accounts of staffers whose harassment complaints were mishandled cast a spotlight on the 23-year-old system of resolving such disputes.
“For too long victims of workplace harassment in the Senate have been forced into a process that is stacked against them,” Klobuchar said. “This legislation will help bring accountability and transparency to a broken process, ensure victims can immediately seek justice, and hold Members of Congress accountable.”