On Tuesday, the House passed a bipartisan bill sponsored by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) that makes significant changes to the way that allegations of sexual harassment will be handled in Congress.
The most significant reform in Speier’s bill (officially known as the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 Reform Act) appears to be a provision that forces lawmakers to pay back the U.S. Treasury when settling sexual harassment claims, a change that has drawn widespread support across ideological boundaries. Other popular provisions in the bill prohibit senators and representatives from dipping into their congressional office funds to pay off settlements and remove requirements for accusers to receive mediation and therapy for months in advance of filing formal charges.
The impetus for Speier’s legislation follows in the wake of increased national focus on complaints of sexual harassment against congressmen and potential problems with the way that the congressional Office of Compliance has handled these cases.
Last November, BuzzFeed News broke the story that longtime Democratic Rep. John Conyers (NY) used his congressional office’s funds to pay a $27,000 settlement to a former staffer who accused him of firing her for refusing his sexual advances. Although complete estimates of the amount of money spent on settling such claims of sexual impropriety are somewhat difficult to come by, past reports suggest that the Treasury alone (thus, not including settlements like Conyers’s) has shelled out hundreds of thousands of dollars over the last couple of decades:
The Treasury Department paid about $174,000 over five years to settle claims that included allegations of sexual harassment or sex discrimination in House member offices, including an $85,000 settlement in a claim against former congressman Eric Massa, The Washington Post confirmed Tuesday.
The payment was one of 15 settlements involving House offices between 2008 and 2012, according to data released Tuesday by a House committee. The data omitted details of the cases, but it was the latest attempt by the House to be transparent in reporting how frequently claims involve accusations of sexual harassment or sex discrimination.
The claims involved a total taxpayer cost of $342,225, with about $174,000 pinned to specific harassment or discrimination claims.
Although Speier’s bill has received near universal acclaim for its efforts to reform the sexual harassment claims process, some are pointing to potential problems with her legislation. According to The Hill:
[G]overnment transparency advocates have criticized a provision [in Speier’s bill] that sidelines the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), an independent watchdog, in reviewing workplace complaints filed through the Office of Compliance process.
Complaints would only be referred to the House Ethics Committee for review; the OCE would not be able to investigate on its own. A spokeswoman for the House Administration Committee said limiting investigations to the Ethics Committee would streamline the review process.
But critics warn that the provision takes away a layer of accountability, given that the OCE was created to ensure that members of the Ethics Committee would hold their colleagues to ethics standards.
"One can only hope that this is not a case of the camel’s nose slipping under the tent signaling further efforts to undermine OCE’s role, while limited, in upholding strong ethical standards in the House of Representatives," Issue One executive director Meredith McGehee said.
It's worth noting here that it was House Democrats, including current Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who originally pushed for the creation of the OCE during the Bush administration, ostensibly to prevent lawmakers from overlooking or ignoring serious ethical problems among their colleagues. Again, according to The Hill:
The OCE was created in 2008 as an independent, nonpartisan entity to add a layer of accountability to the House ethics process. Then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) led the push to create the OCE as part of a congressional ethics reform package in response to the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal and violations by former Reps. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), Mark Foley (R-Fla.) and Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.).
Thus, if the Senate passes Speier’s bill without making any significant changes, it would undermine an institution that Democrats insisted was necessary to prevent ethical abuses by members of Congress.