Lawmakers in the House and Senate passed a bill on Thursday that would require members of Congress to foot the bill for their own sexual harassment settlements, a contentious provision of the anti-harassment provision that held it up for months.
The new legislation upends the Congressional Accountability Act, which for 23 years had established the sexual harassment reporting process in Congress. Under the act, victims of sexual misconduct were required to undergo a 30-day period of counseling after filing their claim. After those 30 days, victims had to spend another 15 deciding if, instead of pursuing their claim, they wished to opt for mediation, an internal judiciary process that would end in a confidential settlement. Rather than coming out of the pockets of the accused, these settlements came from the Office of Compliance and were funded with taxpayer dollars.
Now, members of Congress accused of harassment will have to reimburse the Treasury Department for their settlements.
“This is a bill that fundamentally changes the way sexual harassment cases are handled in the Senate and in the House,” Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, one of the co-sponsors on the bill, told Politico Thursday. “The process we have will now protect victims of harassment instead of protecting politicians.”
The anti-harassment bill passed in the House in February, one of two pieces of legislation House members pushed through to address the #MeToo movement on Capitol Hill. When the bill made it to the Senate, however, some Republican senators stalled the legislation with opposition to the mandate that they be responsible for paying their own harassment settlements.
Some senators “feel very strongly that we went too far in our bill, and they want a much weaker process,” Alabama Representative Bradley Byrne, a Republican, told Politico in August. “I don’t think that’s what the public expects of us.”
Senators sponsoring the bill—which included Klobuchar, Missouri Senator Roy Blunt, California Senator Jackie Speier, and Alabama Senator Bradley Byrne—and their allies tried a number of tactics to encourage its passage.
In May, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand took to the Senate floor to shame Senate leadership for allowing the bill to languish for what was at that point 100 days.
"While practically every other industry in the country seems to be taking this issue far more seriously, and at least trying to make an effort to change their workplaces, Congress is dragging its feet," Gillibrand said at the time. "Once again, a problem is staring us right in the face and we're looking the other way."
Months later, senators considered attaching the legislation to a September spending bill members of Congress had to pass in order to avoid another government shutdown. It didn't happen.
Klobuchar said the bill's passage is important, not just because of what it means for lawmakers on the Hill, but also because of the signal it sends to the rest of the country.
“Sexual harassment goes far beyond the cases you read in the headlines—it’s not just about the rich and famous, but also the nurse, or the teacher, or the line worker at the factory. Today, Congress sent a message that workplace harassment of any kind is unacceptable," she said in a joint press release with Blunt's office on Thursday. “The time has come to stop protecting politicians and to start supporting victims. All men and women deserve a workplace free from harassment.”