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House unveils new bill to fight sexual harassment in Congress

Lawmakers would be required to pay back any taxpayer money used to settle claims

by Carter Sherman
Jan 18 2018, 9:34pm

Right now, congressional staffers who want to report sexual harassment must undergo a labyrinthine process. They have to endure months of mandatory administrative arbitration, keep silent about the process, and ultimately perhaps watch their abusers use taxpayer dollars to secretly settle their cases.

But under a bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives Thursday, that decades-old practice will end.

Weeks after allegations of sexual misconduct led several members of Congress to step aside, a bipartisan group of House lawmakers have introduced the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 Reform Act. And the measure aims to totally overhaul the way the Capitol deals with sexual harassment complaints.

Under this bill, lawmakers would be required to pay back any taxpayer money used to settle claims made against them personally within 90 days. If legislators don’t, that money could be withheld from their salaries, retirement accounts, or Social Security.

Read more: House members are finally required to go through harassment training

House lawmakers have paid out more than $700,000 in taxpayer money to settle sexual harassment claims over the past ten years, Buzzfeed News reported last year.

“We’re going to wipe this kind of behavior out from a financial standpoint if nothing else,” California Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier told NBC News. Speier has emerged as a vocal advocate for survivors of sexual misconduct, after she revealed in late October that she’d also endured sexual harassment while working as a congressional aide.

People lodging sexual harassment complaints would also no longer be forced to wait through a 30-day counseling period and a 30-day mediation period, or to sign non-disclosure agreements. They would also be able to work from home or take a paid leave while the complaint process unwinds, and would be guaranteed legal representation by a newly created “Office of Employee Medicine.”

However, people making complaints will need to file them under oath, in an apparent effort to help avoid frivolous complaints.

“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," Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Bob Brady said in an email to NBC News.

Last year, several lawmakers decided to resign or not run for re-election after facing allegations of abuse and sexual harassment and assault, including Michigan Democratic Rep. John Conyers, Texas Republican Rep. Blake Farenthold, Texas Republican Rep. Trent Franks, and Minnesota Democratic Sen. Al Franken.

Cover image: Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) joins members of the House Administration Committee during a hearing on preventing sexual harassment in Congress on Capitol Hill December 7, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)