House Unanimously Passes Bills To Change Response To Sexual Harassment On Capitol Hill | KERA News

House Unanimously Passes Bills To Change Response To Sexual Harassment On Capitol Hill

Feb 6, 2018
Originally published on February 6, 2018 8:05 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Also today in Congress, the House voted to change the way sexual harassment complaints are handled on Capitol Hill. Two bipartisan pieces of legislation passed with unanimous support. One of the biggest changes is that House members are now banned from having sexual relationships with their employees. The action is the product of an internal review ordered by House Speaker Paul Ryan in light of the #MeToo movement.

NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis joins us now. Hi, Sue.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: I'm amazed that up till now it's been legal for House members to have sexual relationships with their employees. But what else is in this bill?

DAVIS: There's a lot of change coming to Capitol Hill. The House passed two measures today. They're a little bit different, and the distinction matters. The first one is a House rules change. This only applies to one chamber, so it's not a law. It doesn't have to be passed by the Senate. What that one does is it establishes a new office of employee advocacy that will essentially represent employees when they file complaints. Lawmakers always had a legal advocate in these complaints. Now employees will have them, too. It will also require congressional offices to certify that they haven't used any taxpayer funds to shield payouts for any harassment complaints that may have been settled in their offices.

And the other measure they passed is a bill. That would still need to pass the Senate. But that fundamentally overhauls the federal law that handles how - that dictates how complaints are handled on the Hill. It will do things like streamline the process, eliminate mandatory wait times, enforce mediation. And supporters say this is all about supporting victims' rights.

SHAPIRO: Just to take stock here, at least four lawmakers have resigned in recent months over allegations of sexual misconduct - one senator, three members of the House. How do these changes affect lawmakers and the way that they operate in Congress?

DAVIS: These measures are really about sending a message of zero tolerance. California Democrat Jackie Speier - she's been one of the leading voices in this debate, and she talked about that dynamic on the floor today. Here's what she said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JACKIE SPEIER: Members are going to be held responsible for their bad behavior, and we will require them to pay the settlement in full in 90 days. And if they can't do that, we will garnish their wages. We will garnish their Thrift Saving Plans (ph), and we will garnish their Social Security.

DAVIS: So what she's talking about is that this would be a law that says any lawmaker involved personally in a settlement would have to pay out of their own pocket. Currently taxpayers pay for those settlements when they're handled. And a lot of this conversation, I would say, has always focused on sexual harassment complaints, but this would apply to any harassment or discrimination complaint against a lawmaker.

And as you noted, there is now a new House rule that is effective immediately that would ban any member of the House from engaging in a sexual relationship with anyone who works for them in their office. If they were, it would make them subject to an ethics violation, which is something that would be very new. I will note this does not apply to just general dating on Capitol Hill. Staffer-to-staffer dating is still OK. It's just about lawmakers and the people that work for them.

SHAPIRO: In this incredibly partisan time, it seems remarkable that these passed unanimously.

DAVIS: Not only were they unanimous. They were bipartisan. There was no dissent on the floor. Speier noted it was written by men and women, conservatives and liberals. And the fact that it passed that opposition I just think speaks to the politics of this moment. Here's Maryland Democratic Congressman Jamie Raskin. He spoke to that on the floor today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMIE RASKIN: This continuing women's march across America for workplace fairness has forced the members of this body to acknowledge that here in Congress, sexual harassment has been a serious occupational hazard for thousands of women who only want to come to work to support their families and to contribute to the common good of the country.

DAVIS: As you noted, Ari, Congress has not escaped this #MeToo wave. We've seen members forced out over these allegations. Speaker Paul Ryan really did want to move fast and look responsive to this. They're very sensitive about this being an issue in an election year.

SHAPIRO: Just briefly, you think the Senate is going to be as enthusiastic about this as the House was?

DAVIS: The Senate hasn't been as reactive to the movement, but I think that's kind of indicative of how the Senate operates. They have already approved new rules that mandate sexual harassment training for everyone that works in the Senate, including senators. Senator Amy Klobuchar - she's a Minnesota Democrat. She's taking the lead on the legislative side. I talked to her office today. She says there's a working group on this. They're interested in doing it, and they would like to get it done before the midterm elections.

SHAPIRO: NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis, thank you.

DAVIS: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLUTCHY HOPKINS' "3:06") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.