The US Congress Will Change It’s Sexual Harassment Complaint System

{Democratic Representative Jackie Speier – cosponsor of the bill}

Big news in the US Congress today as the House of Representatives voted on Tuesday to reform the way sexual harassment complaints are handled within Congress. In the wake of Time’s Up and #MeToo, a bipartisan bill was passed in the house and is now on it’s way to the Senate, where it will need to be voted on before it can be signed into law by the President, however a House resolution goes into effect immediately.

Both parties have had to deal with misconduct and harassment allegations as well as the fundamentally huge fallouts amongst their ranks over the last year. In late 2017, current and former congresswomen and staffers opened up about negative experiences with harassment in Congress, including the shocking fact that some of the accused are still serving currently. In the aftermath of recent complaints, some elected officials have stepped down after allegations and others have announced they won’t seek re-election.

On the plus side, both the House and Senate passed resolutions making sexual harassment awareness training for members and staff mandatory in November in an attempt to fix the complaint process. Unfortunately the process itself has been criticised for being archaic, out of touch and protecting abusers instead of victims at almost every level of the system – from how complaints are submitted to the fact that members of Congress could use taxpayer money to settle cases. This old-fashioned process even required accusers to spend time – sometimes months – in mediation and counselling before they could even file an official complaint and both parties were required to sign confidentiality agreements. If the accuser still wanted to go ahead, the complaint would have to be filed in court or they could ask for an administrative hearing.
The Congressional Accountability Act Reform Act, a bipartisan bill, fundamentally changes the procedure. The mandatory counselling and mediation processes are gone, the Office of Compliance needs to make details of the settlements public every six months, and advocates will be available to staffers to navigate the process – as well, members of Congress must repay settlements within 90 days. TheĀ House resolution, which was effective immediately, requires an anti-harassment, anti-discrimination policy to be adopted by every member’s office. The resolution has also created the Office of Employment Advocacy, allowing staffers help in navigating workplace issues. An amazing thing about the resolution is it blocks House members from quietly settling claims through the use of office funds, or salary adjustments and officially states that House members “may not engage in unwelcome sexual advances or conduct” towards fellow representatives or staffers.

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