Secretive Harassment Bailouts for Congress Addressed in Reform Act

Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) has joined a bipartisan group of senators who have introduced the  Congressional Harassment Reform Act “to overhaul the current system of reporting in Congress of any kind of harassment or discrimination, and provide victims with greater protections and choice,” Ernst said in a news release. She gives her “Squeal Award” this month to the secretive bailout of Members of Congress.

“You may have heard about the disturbing revelations that more than $17 million in taxpayer dollars has been used to settle congressional work place disputes over the last 20 years,” Ernst says. “It’s appalling to say the least that taxpayers are left on the hook to foot the bill for Members of Congress’s inexcusable and horrifying wrongdoings. This is completely unacceptable.”

According to Ernst, the legislation will require Members of Congress who have been found personally liable for harassment or discrimination to pay for settlements out of their own pockets - not taxpayers’ pockets.

“Congress should never be above the law or play by their own set of rules,” says Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), another sponsor of the bill. “We should treat every person who works here with respect and dignity, and that means creating a climate where there is accountability, fairness, respect, and access to justice if sexual harassment takes place. There are real costs to sexual harassment in the workplace. We now know that many people quit their jobs because of it, or miss out on promotions or raises, all of which can throw off the entire trajectory in their careers. We must ensure that Congress handles complaints to create an environment where staffers can come forward if something happens to them without having to fear that it will ruin their careers. This bipartisan legislation would bring us much closer to that goal.”

Specifically, the Congressional Harassment Reform Act, as lined out by Ernst, would do the following:

  • Extends protections to interns and fellows
  • Requires everyone working on Capitol Hill, including Members, to take the Office of Compliance training
  • Changes the name of the Office of Compliance (OOC) to the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights
  • Puts victims in the driver’s seat by allowing them to choose how to resolve their complaint (e.g. counseling and mediation are both no longer mandatory) and protecting their option to discuss their claim publicly
  • Establishes a Confidential Advisor to consult, on a confidential basis, with any employee who has alleged harassment or discrimination; and assist any employee who has an allegation under Title IV in understanding the procedures, and the significance of the procedures
  • Gives OOC’s General Counsel the authority to conduct interviews and gather evidence regarding complaints of covered harassment and discrimination filed under this section, including interviews with former employees
  • Allows individuals to work remotely without penalty throughout proceedings
  • Improves tracking of complaints and procedures by implementing an online platform
  • Requires that if a Member of Congress is found to be personally liable for harassment or discrimination, they will be responsible for the cost of any settlement
  • Requires that if a Member of Congress is found to be personally liable for harassment or discrimination, any settlement must be approved by the Senate or House Ethics Committee
  • Requires that all settlements will be publicly disclosed unless the victims choose to keep them private
  • Requires offices to post notices with information about employees’ rights and how to contact the Office of Compliance
  • Provides for a climate survey to identify the pervasiveness of the problem and what gaps continue to exist in its resolution


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Submitted by egeneh on Wed, 12/20/2017 - 10:10

This proposal clearly improves on the current situation, but it overlooks the fact that many settlements arising from harassment allegations are reached without a finding as to the merits of the claim. In my experience in a state civil rights agency, the vast majority of settlements of these and other discrimination charges were reached prior to a finding of probable cause and determination of liability. And there would certainly need to be a clear definition of what actually constitutes "harassment." Not everything that's offensive or unwanted in the workplace rises to the level of illegal harassment as determined by federal and state employment laws (and there are variations among those). While some refinement is necessary, this proposal is a good place to start.