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Congress members may soon be barred from using taxpayer money to settle sexual harassment cases

Congress makes its own rules about the handling of sexual complaints against members and staff. Here's why it’s so hard to report sexual harassment in Congress. (Video: Victoria Walker/The Washington Post)

A bipartisan bill mandating that members of Congress pay sexual harassment settlements themselves was introduced Thursday as part of an effort to reform the House’s current, secretive method of dealing with workplace complaints.

The bill comes after seven members of Congress have either resigned or said they would not seek reelection in recent months, which has led to a public outcry over sexual harassment and use of taxpayer funds in resolving complaints.

The proposed amendment to the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995, which governs the handling of sexual harassment cases brought against Congress members, would give sexual harassment victims stronger protections when filing a complaint. Victims who come forward will have access to an advocate who will provide legal consultation, will be able to work remotely or request paid leave without fear of retribution.

One of the most significant proposals would prohibit lawmakers from using taxpayer money to pay for harassment settlements. Accused lawmakers must repay settlement money to the Treasury within 90 days, even if they step down from their positions, according to a statement Thursday from the Committee on House Administration. New compliance procedures would ensure that settlements are not paid from congressional office accounts.

The bill also proposes increased transparency by mandating that the Office of Compliance conduct a climate survey of employees every two years and publish settlement reports online every six months.

But under the current system, there is not one lawmaker or committee in the House that is responsible for tracking informal and formal settlements lawmakers reach to resolve potential or existing sexual harassment claims, The Post’s  reported.

How a congressional harassment claim led to a secret $220,000 payment

Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said in a statement that the legislation “brings us one step closer” to fulfilling a promise of improving the workplace safety of Congress.

“It ensures that victims of workplace harassment have the resources they need to get the justice they deserve,” he said. “No staffer or member should ever feel unsafe in public service, and this bill will help make that a reality.”

Advocates say the current system protects those in power, and victims often take no action against members who harass them because they fear it will ruin their futures on Capitol Hill.

Kimberly Kindy, Michelle Ye Hee Lee and Elise Viebeck contributed to this report. 

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