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House prohibits sexual relationships between lawmakers and their staffers

The sun lights the sky behind the Capitol on Tuesday. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The House voted Tuesday to prohibit sexual relationships between lawmakers and their employees, a remarkable rule change that brings the institution in line with the military and the private sector after a rash of sexual harassment and misconduct allegations roiled Capitol Hill.

The prohibition, pushed by Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), took immediate effect as Congress moved toward changing the system for reporting and adjudicating employees’ claims of sexual harassment. The House approved language Tuesday establishing an office to advocate for employees during that process and a separate bill requiring lawmakers to reimburse taxpayers when they are involved in workplace settlements.

“Thanks to the #MeToo movement, the American public has made it clear that they have had enough,” said Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.). “They expect Congress to lead, and for once we are.”

The bipartisan bills are Congress’s most definitive response to the #MeToo campaign and the wave of harassment and misconduct scandals that have led to at least eight members resigning or announcing plans to retire in the past four months. Amid a national reckoning over sexual misbehavior in the workplace, news reports exposing lawmakers’ secretive process for settling harassment complaints with taxpayer dollars pushed House leaders to confront criticisms of the system.

“With this bill we are shining a blazing light on the scourge of workplace abuse, which has been allowed to fester in the shadows for too long,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

The #MeToo movement roils Capitol Hill as more allegations are made public

The bills cancel the requirement that accusers undergo counseling and mediation and loosen confidentiality rules governing the complaint process.

Comstock supported the legislation but noted its failure to require the disclosure of which members of Congress have reached settlements over harassment claims. “Part of that misuse of power is they can continue to know they won’t be held accountable, and the victims see that,” Comstock said.

The House approved both measures by voice vote under suspension of the rules, a method for fast-tracking noncontroversial bills.

H.R. 4924 alters the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 to require members to reimburse the Treasury Department when they are involved in settlements; automatically refers cases that have settled to the House Ethics Committee; extends workplace protections to unpaid staffers, including interns; gives staffers the ability to file a lawsuit at the same time as they file a complaint; and improves record-keeping.

A separate resolution, House Resolution 724, requires each member of the House to adopt policies prohibiting harassment and discrimination; establishes the nonpartisan Office of Employee Advocacy to provide assistance to staffers with complaints; mandates that each member’s office certify it is not using its budget for workplace settlements; and prohibits sexual relationships between members and “any employee of the House that works under [their] supervision.”

Previously, House rules did not explicitly prohibit such relationships. The new rules bar lawmakers from engaging in “unwelcome sexual advances or conduct” toward colleagues and House employees but do not ban sexual relationships between lawmakers and staffers they do not supervise.

Little about the bills provoked controversy, with the exception of a provision to stop an independent ethics watchdog from investigating certain claims. The resolution placed the onus on the House Ethics Committee instead of the Office of Congressional Ethics, which tends to be more transparent about its findings, to look into allegations of workplace misconduct. This element of the legislation has drawn criticism from groups that argue the Ethics Committee has a poor track record of holding members accountable for improper behavior.

Since October, four members of Congress have resigned over allegations of sexual harassment or misconduct.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who resigned his seat Jan. 2, was accused by eight women of inappropriate touching or forcible kissing, mostly before his election. Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) resigned Oct. 5 after a news report said that he asked a woman with whom he had an extramarital affair to get an abortion.

Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) left his longtime seat Dec. 5 after six former employees accused him of unwanted sexual advances and other mistreatment. And Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) resigned Dec. 8 after reports that he offered a female staff member $5 million if she would bear his child.

Four other lawmakers have announced that they will not run for reelection amid similar scandals.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) said Nov. 30 that he would not seek another term after a lewd photo he sent to a woman with whom he was having an extramarital affair circulated online.

Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.) said he would leave Congress amid allegations that he sexually harassed female staff members.

Rep. Ruben Kihuen (D-Nev.) said Dec. 16 that he would not run for reelection after multiple women accused him of unwanted advances. Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.) said Jan. 25 that he would not seek another term after reports that he settled with a former female staffer whom he later called his “soul mate.”

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