The House Ethics Committee is calling for a swift resolution to negotiations over how to change the system for reporting sexual harassment and other abusive workplace behavior on Capitol Hill, as months of delay threaten to push the debate into the next Congress.
With only a few working weeks left in the term, the 10 members of the Ethics Committee wrote to congressional leaders Monday to tout the House-passed reform bill and highlight the “overwhelming” bipartisan support in the lower chamber for changing the process for reporting misconduct.
“Members and employees alike should be able to work free from sexual harassment or discrimination of any kind. The American public must also have confidence that we in Congress not only view these issues with the seriousness they demand — but that we are taking action,” the committee’s letter stated.
“We believe that it is imperative that Congress act quickly to pass legislation to reform the Congressional Accountability Act that includes the critical provisions of the House legislation,” the letter said.
The two chambers failed to agree to a final reform bill before the midterm elections, further stalling an effort that has been in motion since the height of the #MeToo movement last year.
Currently, the only recourse for congressional staffers facing workplace harassment or discrimination is a complex and widely criticized process that mandates counseling, mediation and “cooling off” periods for accusers and allows lawmakers to use public funds for confidential settlements.
The House and Senate passed separate reform bills this year and have been in negotiations since late spring on a compromise. Sticking points have included when lawmakers would be required to repay the Treasury Department for settlements, how claims would be investigated and what kind of free advice would be provided to accusers.
Under the House bill, accusers would receive free legal counsel during the reporting process, while under the Senate bill they would receive help from a “confidential adviser” who is barred from providing legal advice.
The House bill would end mandatory mediation, while the Senate bill would require accusers to opt out.
The measures also define harassment slightly differently, with the House bill referring simply to sexual harassment and the Senate using the phrase “unwelcome harassment.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said the goal is a compromise in the next five weeks.
“I was talking to Senator [Amy] Klobuchar about that at length last night,” McConnell said last week of the Minnesota lawmaker, the top Democrat on the Rules Committee. “We’re working on getting that done before the end of the year.”