Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) and several other lawmakers say Congress must improve its handling of sexual misconduct allegations on Capitol Hill. (Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)

A bipartisan group of lawmakers on Wednesday proposed a sweeping expansion of workplace protections in Congress — a direct response to the recent groundswell of claims about unwanted sexual advances, inappropriate comments and other misconduct on Capitol Hill.

The bill comes a day after a public hearing in which female lawmakers described sexual harassment as a pervasive problem and suggested current members of Congress have engaged in misconduct.

The measure, the Member and Employee Training and Oversight On Congress Act, or ME TOO Congress Act, aims to make the complaint-filing process less cumbersome for legislative employees. It would also make public the names of employing congressional offices that paid out settlements in harassment or discrimination cases. Employees no longer would be bound by confidentiality requirements or required to go through mediation.

The legislation would also require members of Congress to pay for harassment claim settlements out of their own budgets rather than the current source — a special fund in the U.S. Treasury.

“For all intents and purposes, a staffer in the Capitol is powerless and gagged . . . Today, we are going to end all of that,” said Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), co-sponsor of the House legislation and an outspoken critic of the current system. Speier has publicly described being forcibly kissed by a chief of staff when she was a congressional employee.

The bill aims to restore some of the worker protections that Congress exempted for itself more than two decades ago through the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act, which imposed a range of civil rights, labor and worker-safety laws on Capitol Hill for the first time.

Under the current process, claimants are bound by strict confidentiality requirements and must undergo mediation to try to resolve the claim out of court or an administrative hearing. Worker protections do not apply to interns and fellows, and legislative employees do not have the same whistleblower protection as federal-agency employees do.

The effect, some lawmakers and advocates say, is a system in which victims are silenced and it is difficult to hold perpetrators accountable.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) has said the House will adopt a policy change to make anti-harassment training mandatory for all members and staff. Last week, Senate for the first time in its history required members and their aides to receive anti-harassment training.

It’s unclear how much support there will be for the legislation, which was introduced by Speier, along with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Reps. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.), Ann Kuster (D-N.H.) and Bruce Poliquin (R-Maine).

But in recent weeks, Congress has come under pressure to improve working conditions on the Hill.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) on Nov. 15 said “there is a serious sexual harassment problem in Congress.” Gillibrand is among several lawmakers introducing a bill to revise procedures for reporting harassment in Congress. (Reuters)

“In examining it [the current system], you come away understanding that the system is set up to protect the perpetrator, not the victim,” said Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.). “So that’s an old-boys-club set of rules. That needs to be completely done away with and a whole new system set up.”

Other lawmakers said recent claims about misconduct have forced a new conversation about harassment.

“I think there’s some awareness that what has been common practice for some period of time may not in the light of day be acceptable to the broader public,” said Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-Conn.).

Rep. Linda T. Sánchez (D-Calif.), said the attitude toward sexual harassment and assault claims is shifting in Congress to take it more seriously than ever before, but that there has not yet been a clear change among her colleagues about how to fix the problem.

“I can’t say that anything has changed overnight,” said Sánchez. “I think certainly among the men that I’ve spoken to, they’ve always known that it exists, but I don’t think that they had an idea of how widespread it is across industries. So I think people’s attitudes are changing. And I’m hopeful that the process for reporting this and dealing with this effectively improves because of it.”

More than 1,500 former congressional employees have signed a letter urging Congress to require anti-harassment training and to overhaul the reporting process, which advocates say is stacked against the victim and designed to protect the institution.

“Congress should never play by its own set of rules. As elected officials, we should be held to the highest standards — not to the lowest,” Gillibrand said.

The Washington Post is examining workplace violations on Capitol Hill and the process for reporting them. To contact a reporter, please email
michelle.lee@washpost.com, elise.viebeck@washpost.com or kimberly.kindy@washpost.com.

Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.