Government funding isn’t the only thing that’s become a nail-biter in Congress right now.
With just a few weeks left in the current congressional term, lawmakers are still finalizing negotiations on a long-awaited sexual harassment bill that would tackle how allegations are addressed in the government body.
If they don’t complete negotiations, this legislation — aimed at increasing lawmakers’ accountability — would have to be reintroduced when the new congressional term begins in 2019, though there are no guarantees that it would be.
While both chambers have already approved their own takes on the bill, the main holdup continues to be disagreements between the House and the Senate over just how strong to make certain provisions. Both their bills strive to improve the reporting process and eliminate a mandatory “cooling off” period that’s currently required before harassment allegations can even be filed, but the House bill goes quite a bit further to protect victims.
The House bill would ensure that victims have employer-provided legal counsel, for example, while the Senate bill would not. A spokesperson for Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) — a chief House sponsor of the legislation and an outspoken advocate for the #MeToo movement — told Vox that members are currently working on a compromise that she’s confident will see some floor action before the year is out.
This end-of-term push might be just what the legislation — which has stalled in recent months — needs to get it across the finish line, though the limited time lawmakers have to work with doesn’t necessarily bode well.
Momentum around the bill was initially very strong when it was introduced roughly a year ago as Congress scrambled to address a rash of sexual harassment allegations that led to the resignations of numerous lawmakers including Reps. Blake Farenthold and John Conyers and Sen. Al Franken. Though the House passed its bill in February and the Senate did the same in May, the legislation’s movement across both bodies has since lagged, prompting concerns that a more sweeping sexual harassment overhaul in Congress would ultimately get pushed to the wayside.
With a package of contentious funding bills still on deck, and a slew of other key items to wrap up, the clock is ticking for lawmakers in the House and the Senate to make sure that doesn’t happen.
What does Congress’s sexual harassment bill do?
Both versions of the sexual harassment bill Congress is weighing are intended to improve the reporting process for potential victims, increase transparency around settlements, and increase lawmakers’ financial liability if they face such allegations.
Notably, that includes a provision ensuring that lawmakers would cover the costs of their own settlements if accused. (One of the revelations from earlier this year included news that Congress members such as Farenthold were able to use taxpayer funds from their personal offices to pay for harassment settlements.)
As Vox’s Jane Coaston reports, the Senate and House bills both seek to streamline the channels for victims to file allegations:
Specifically, the legislation eliminates mandatory “cooling off” periods before victims of harassment can file complaints against their harassers ... and requires members of the Senate to pay back the Treasury for any settlements related to the harassment they committed.
Currently, if a congressional staffer is harassed, the Office of Compliance initiates a four-step process: a counseling period that could last up to 30 days, a mediation effort, an administrative hearing or civil action (a lawsuit), and an appeals process. Victims can’t even make a formal complaint about sexual harassment until more than two months have passed, including a 30-day period after enduring a mediation process.
House members’ main gripe, however, is that the Senate bill dramatically weakens three key tenets of the legislation, including the need for lawmakers to be liable for discrimination settlements as well as harassment settlements.
The Senate bill would only require lawmakers to personally pay for “unwelcome” harassment settlements — a term that creates a potential loophole when it comes to accountability in different cases, Speier’s spokesperson notes. By curbing liability for discrimination claims, the Senate’s bill explicitly spells out and limits the types of settlements a Congress member would have to cover themselves, CNN reports.
The House bill also offers legal counsel to anyone reporting harassment, as well as an independent investigation before the review of allegations begins, both of which the Senate bill omits.
Lawmakers are bullish that it could still get through, but they’re running out of time to deliver
Though the bill has moved at a relatively glacial pace in past months, those backing it remain confident that it has the political wherewithal to get through this term.
“It appears there’s plenty of will in the House and Senate to get this done before the end of the year, and I’m banking on it,” Speier told Vox in a statement. A spokesperson for Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) — a co-sponsor of the legislation in the Senate — has also noted that “talks are ongoing.”
Shortly after the midterms, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also offered another signal in the bill’s favor, when he expressed interest in addressing sexual harassment legislation before the term is out.
And it’s certainly possible that could still happen: The bill has the potential to be considered as standalone legislation, or it could hitch a ride on the outstanding spending package that Congress still needs to pass to keep parts of the government open.
Conversely, the ongoing fight over these spending bills and other residual agenda items could mean that Congress ends up pushing off sexual harassment legislation altogether.
If that happens, it would mean the nation’s legislature will simply continue the tradition of ignoring a pernicious and pervasive problem.