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Congress approves policy to make lawmakers personally liable for sexual harassment claims

Little time left to overhaul how Congress reacts to sexual harassment allegations against lawmakers
“Now that we have a bill that will become law, there is going to be accountability by members,” said Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough).
(Alex Edelman / Tribune News Service)

Members of Congress will have to pay out of their own pockets to settle sexual and other harassment claims made against them under a compromise approved Thursday by the Senate and House.

Currently taxpayers cover the cost of settling harassment claims made against elected officials. The new policy is a bipartisan response in the #MeToo era after nearly seven months of negotiations between the House and Senate.

President Trump is expected to sign the measure, which takes effect in January.

The House had wanted lawmakers to also be liable for discrimination claims made against them. Some House members said Thursday that they hoped to address that issue next year along with others, including a proposal to provide legal assistance to accusers as well as the accused. That legislation will be written to apply only to House members and staff, and representatives said the Senate has agreed to pass it.

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“We believe this is a strong step toward creating a new standard in Congress that will set a positive example in our nation, but there is still more work to be done,” key House members said in a statement.

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said limiting members’ liability to cases of harassment, and excluding discrimination complaints, is more practical.

“It really was always about harassment and individual activity, and discrimination is much broader and much harder. Certainly people are still protected if they are discriminated against. They are protected like they would be working for any other employer,” Blunt said.

California Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) said the proposed policy still would hold members accountable for their behavior. That was a major driver of the bill after nine lawmakers — eight House members and one senator — resigned since last fall when sexual harassment allegations against them became public.

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“Time’s up. Time is finally up,” Speier said Wednesday. Speier’s personal testimony about the harassment she suffered as a staff member on Capitol Hill was a captivating moment in spurring Congress to act. “With this bill they will no longer be able to slink away with no one knowing that they have harassed. There will be transparency, and members will be held accountable.”

The bill does not limit how much of a settlement members will be liable for, a provision the House wanted, but it caps at $300,000 how much they have to pay if a judge rules against them, which the Senate wanted.

Lawmakers will have to repay the U.S. Treasury, and those who do not can have their wages, savings and even Social Security benefits garnished.

Some outside advocacy groups had blamed a handful of Republican senators for the lengthy negotiations, saying they were holding up the bill because they opposed being liable for claims made against them.

Blunt said he didn’t know of a single settlement involving a senator since the Congressional Accountability Act first set policies for how to address harassment on Capitol Hill in 1995. “So, if senators will continue to conduct themselves like they appear to have been … they may never have a settlement,” he said.

House members have a different record. Since 2003, taxpayers have shelled out nearly $300,000 to settle 13 sexual harassment or sex discrimination claims made against a representative, according to the House Administration Committee and House Office of Compliance.

“From the members’ point of view, it just creates one more potential liability that you really have less control over how it’s dealt with,” Blunt said. “But you certainly have control over whether you create the situation that creates a need to deal with it or not.”

The compromise bill puts the House and Senate ethics committees in charge of reviewing the settlements, he said. The House had wanted an independent agency, rather than fellow lawmakers on those committees, to review the settlements. The bill also requires an annual public reporting of any settlements or awards made against members of Congress, and for the first time allows interns and fellows working on Capitol Hill to file harassment complaints.

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sarah.wire@latimes.com

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