After almost a year of wrangling, both chambers of Congress on Thursday finally passed a bill transforming the way workplace harassment accusations are handled in the capitol. Under the new law, not only will lawmakers will be forced to reimburse the government for harassment or retaliation settlements rather than allow taxpayers to absorb those costs, those lawmakers will be identified publicly as will the details of the settlements.
The bill comes at the tail end of a legislative session in which accusations forced the resignations of a number legislators, including former Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-TX) who left Congress after revelations surfaced that taxpayers paid $84,000 to settle a sexual harassment settlement against him. Farenthold promised he would pay the money back, but reneged on that promise after leaving D.C.
The Texas legislator was far from the only member of Congress to have taken advantage of the old system: last year, the Office of Compliance released figures showing that Congress had paid out $17 million dollars in 268 similar settlements over the previous decade. (The office did not name which lawmakers reached the settlements.)
Under the new legislation, court awards and settlements will automatically be referred to the Committee on Ethics, which will investigate the claims against the lawmaker or staff member involved. The process for bringing a claim in Congress has been revised. Gone is the mandatory 30-day “cooling off” period, 30-day counseling requirement,and 30-day mediation period. Those provisions have been replaced by a preliminary review, an optional mediation and a formal hearing. Full legal representation will be provided to House staffers, while Senate aides will be able to speak with a “confidential advocate” who is not allowed to represent them.
The bill, which will have to be signed by President Trump before it becomes law, states members will be responsible for up to $300,000 of judgements awarded by a court. (There would be no cap for settlements reached outside of court.)