Bipartisan Bill Would Overhaul The Way Hill Staffers Report Sexual Harassment

UNITED STATES -  NOVEMBER 15: Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., right, and Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., hold a news conference in the House studio to introduce legislation that aims to address and prevent sexual harassment for Capitol Hill staff on November 15, 2017. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Tom Williams/CQPHO

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) on Wednesday afternoon introduced legislation that would overhaul the way Congress handles sexual harassment complaints, in addition to requiring members and staffers to undergo sexual harassment training.

Both chambers in Congress will now mandate that all members and staffers receive sexual harassment training, but Speier, Gillibrand and other members argue that training is not enough. Speier testified in a House hearing on Tuesday that the current process for filing complaints is confusing, insufficient and biased against victims.

She said in a press conference Wednesday introducing the bill that the legislation is about “bringing light to a very dark corner of our society.” Speier said that training is not enough, even though Congress “is quick to pat itself on the back” for “modest” accomplishments.

“Zero tolerance is meaningless unless it is backed up with enforcement and transparency,” Speier said.

Gillibrand said that the current process is “tilted against victims” and that Congress must change the way it handles sexual harassment complaints.

“We should be held to the highest standards, not the lowest,” she said.

The bill introduced Wednesday, the Member and Employee Training and Oversight On (ME TOO) Congress Act, would change the reporting process. Gillibrand and Speier are the lead sponsors of the partner bills, and Speier is joined by Reps. Ryan Costello (R-PA), Ann McLane Kuster (D-NH), and Bruce Poliquin (R-ME) on the House bill.

The new legislation would do away with requirements that staffers undergo counseling and mediation before filing a sexual harassment complaint and that staffers sign non-disclosure agreements before starting mediation, Speier said. The bill would also give interns and fellows in Congress the same protections when it comes to sexual harassment as paid staffers, according to Speier.

The congresswoman said that the current process only provides taxpayer-funded in-house counsel for the accused harasser and that the ME TOO bill would provide counsel for the victims as well. The legislation would designate someone in the Office of Compliance to work with victims, Gillibrand said.

The bill aims to increase transparency by requiring the Office of Compliance to publish the amount paid out in any sexual harassment settlement, as well as the office in which it occurred, Speier said. If Congress pays a settlement on behalf of a member of Congress accused of sexual harassment, the official will be required to pay the government back under this bill, Speier said. However, staffers would not have to pay back the government for settlements under the legislation.

Speier revealed Tuesday on MSNBC that the House has paid out more than $15 million in settlements on behalf of accused harassers over the past 10 to 15 years.