Legislators will take on financial liability for sexual misconduct instead of taxpayers in new bill
According to USA Today, the House and Senate have agreed to fundamentally change the way sexual misconduct allegations are handled in Congress, making legislators bear the financial burden for settlements instead of taxpayers. The new bill is an update of the Congressional Accountability Act (CAA) which has governed how lawmakers and their aides report sexual misconduct claims for decades. In the past, the CAA has been called confusing and unfair to victims of sexual harassment and abuse.
Over the last year, the urgency for an update to the CAA has been increased, as several legislators resigned amid sexual misconduct accusations which placed Capitol Hill in the crosshairs of the #MeToo reckoning. Earlier in the year, the Senate and House passed different versions of this bill, but making those versions into a congruent whole has taken half the year as some of the more thorny points in the negotiations, including a $300,000 lawmaker liability cap in the Senate’s version of the bill, were debated.
According to the Senate Rules Committee, the final version holds legislators, including those who leave office, financially accountable for settlements resulting from harassment and retaliation claims, although it does not apply these changes for discrimination settlements. The bill also does away with mandatory counseling, mediation, and the “cooling off” period that victims were required to abide by under the previous version of the bill.
Additionally, the bill makes reporting of settlements public, which means that lawmakers who are liable will be identified with a paper trail. The bill also extends protections to interns, fellows, and other staff.
House staffers will also gain legal representation, although Senate staffers will not, and instead will get a confidential advocate that can offer legal advice but cannot act as legal representation.
Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota and sponsor of the bill, told USA Today, “A lot of this was our belief that we had an obligation to fix this ourselves, and while I have no doubt a new Congress could have gotten it done I think we needed to fix the mess. The focus was to make sure we had a system that protected victims and not politicians.”
Even though the final bill does not include discrimination protection or the establishment of an independent investigation into harassment at the start of the process, there are those like California Democrat Jackie Speier, who told USA Today, “Having spoken with many survivors, the process of going up against a lawyer for the institution and the harasser was as traumatic, if not more traumatic, than the abuse they suffered… The House has remained focused on taking a system rigged in favor of the harassers and making it more victim-centric. We are committed to offering victims the tools they need to pursue justice. We will address these issues in the next Congress.”