Lawmakers Appear Willing to Overhaul Anti-Harassment Policies

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By Hassan A. Kanu

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are signaling some willingness to revamp Congress’ policies to fight sexual harassment, but it’s still unclear how far they’ll go.

“There’s no doubt there’ll be mandatory training, but I think we’ll go beyond that,” Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) told Bloomberg Law after a Nov. 14 Committee on House Administration hearing to consider sexual harassment policies. Comstock said during the hearing that she’d recently learned about a congressman who exposed himself to a staffer. She didn’t identify the lawmaker involved or the circumstances of the alleged incident.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said Nov. 14 that the chamber would require members and their staffs to participate in sexual harassment training, following a similar move by the Senate a week earlier. The Senate passed its training resolution Nov. 9. That marked the first substantial policy change since two U.S. lawmakers publicly commented on the prevalence of harassment in the Congress. Much of the attention comes on the heels of the sexual harassment scandal that brought down movie mogul Harvey Weinstein.

House lawmakers are pushing for more comprehensive legislation that would overhaul the law that establishes the procedures for reporting, adjudicating, and remedying sexual harassment. That statute, the Congressional Accountability Act, has been strongly criticized by members of Congress as being too weak.

“This hearing is a good indication that members are swiftly going to move forward on mandatory sexual harassment training, I believe, for both members and staff,” Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) said after the hearing. “The real test will be whether we’re going to reform the Office of Compliance, which is not a victim friendly office.”

Ideas to Boost Protections

The CAA was written by members of Congress. It applies to lawmakers and their staffers.

The law imposes mandatory waiting periods that typically add up to 90 days, as well as nondisclosure requirements for complainants and victims that don’t exist in most of the rest of the federal or even the private workforce.

Speier, who has led failed efforts to reform the law for some time, drafted a bill that would make the counseling and mediation periods voluntary. The bill would also make the confidentiality requirements voluntary; afford whistle-blower protections to people reporting harassment; and grant investigatory powers to the Office of Compliance—which administers the CAA. Speier plans to introduce the legislation this week.

“It’s been over 20 years since Congress enacted the CAA,” Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.) said during the hearing. He added that its an “opportune” time to revisit the statute, in light of recent shifts in cultural awareness of workplace sexual abuse.

Byrne suggested the OOC should have investigatory powers and that members and staff should be personally liable for any harassment. The OOC currently outsources investigations, and settlements or penalties are paid from a special fund in the U.S. Treasury.

“We should work to bring the OOC processes and authority in line with that of the” Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Byrne said.

It’s personally “unacceptable” that “a settlement or judgment is paid by the taxpayers,” he added.

Some Lawmakers Optimistic, But No Clear Signs

Some of the committee members expressed guarded optimism after the unusually congenial and collaborative hearing.

“What I learned today” is that “our Republican Congress is willing to step up—it would appear—and take on this issue in a very serious way,” Speier said.

Rep. Gregg Harper (R-Miss.) said it’s his “personal” belief that Congress will go further than a mandatory training resolution to actually amend the CAA.

A number of others on the panel stressed that the hearing is a “first step.”

Speier has so far declined to say whether her bill has attracted any co-sponsors. And thus far, her colleagues have spoken out in favor of the mandatory resolution, while remaining relatively quiet as to amending the CAA.

The congresswoman has attempted to revamp the CAA before, but her efforts failed because of a lack of support, she told Bloomberg Law.

Asked if there will be resistance this time, Speier said her bill will be introduced in the coming days, and said “we’ll see.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Hassan A. Kanu in Washington at hkanu@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bna.com

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