WASHINGTON ― It should have been the easiest bill Congress passed all year.
But eight months after a congressman resigned after allegedly saying he had “wet dreams” about a female aide who was welcome to “show her nipples,” which was weeks before a congressman resigned after pursuing a female aide he called his “soul mate,” which was months after a congressman resigned after asking female aides to bear his child, lawmakers have failed to pass legislation targeting their own sexual harassment.
It looked like Congress might actually deal with its Me Too problem earlier this year. The House unanimously passed a bill in February making badly needed updates to Congress’ policies on sexual harassment and discrimination. The Senate came around in May and passed its version of the bill. All they had left to do was hash out their differences and agree on a final version.
But they can’t seem to work it out. The heart of the problem is that the House wants tough punishments and more transparency when lawmakers sexually harass or discriminate against staffers, but the Senate wants to water down those provisions.
If they don’t reach a deal in the next couple of weeks, both bills will expire and they’ll have to start all over in the next Congress. Or they could drop the matter entirely.
Aides to House and Senate leaders pushing the bill say talks are ongoing ― as they’ve said for months ― and that the discussions focus on three sticking points.
The first is that the House bill requires lawmakers to pay out of pocket for any settlements relating to sexual harassment and discrimination, while the Senate bill allows continued use of taxpayer money. The second is that the House bill provides legal representation to all accusers, while the Senate bill does not. The third is that the House requires an impartial investigation at the front end of a probe; the Senate bill nixes that.
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), a co-author of the House bill and a leading voice in combatting sexual harassment, is “80 percent confident” that Congress will pass a bill this month, per her office.
“We’re hoping to get it done by the end of the term,” said an aide to Rep. Gregg Harper (R-Miss.), another co-author of the House bill.
The final legislation will also “definitely” hold members personally financially accountable when they sexually harass staff members, per Speier.
That provision ― and the ridiculous dispute over it ― come after former Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) resigned in April without paying back $84,000 in taxpayer money that he spent to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit. By quitting before repaying it, it makes it extremely unlikely that he’ll ever pay it back.
Aides to Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), the co-authors of the Senate bill, did not respond to a request for comment.
It’s hard to overstate how desperately Congress needs to overhaul its process for handling complaints about harassment. Under current law, Capitol Hill staffers who claim they’ve been harassed or discriminated against have to undergo counseling, mandatory mediation and a 30-day “cooling off” period before going to court. Lawmakers can also keep spending taxpayer money for their legal settlements (again, see Farenthold, whose shenanigans HuffPost has written about here, here, here and here).
Four out of 10 female congressional aides say sexual harassment is a problem, per a 2016 CQ Roll Call survey. One in six staffers said they had been personally victimized.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters last month that he is committed to tackling the issue before the current Congress adjourns. He couldn’t give any specifics on how or when it will get done, though.
“We’re working on getting that done before the end of the year,” he said.