Sexual harassment in Congress

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: sexual harassment in Congress.

Last fall, dozens of women accused movie producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual misconduct over decades. Those accusations and subsequent criminal investigations launched the country into what has become known as the Me Too movement.

NICK EICHER, HOST: Since then sexual harassment allegations have surfaced in nearly every industry… and Congress has been no different.

Minnesota Senator Al Franken resigned last January after several women accused him of sexual misconduct. And in the House, Congressmen Patrick Maheen of Pennsylvania, John Conyers of Michigan, and Blake Farenthold of Texas all stepped down after sexual harassment scandals came to light.

REICHARD: Amid those resignations, many lawmakers cited major problems with the way Congress handles sexual misconduct among its own. Now, a year after the Me Too movement began, the House and Senate have both passed a reform bill. WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg brings us this report.

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: The changes in how Congress handles sexual harassment started a year ago when both the House and Senate instituted mandatory sexual harassment training for members and staff.

But lawmakers in both chambers wanted more substantial reforms to how Congress handles sexual misconduct accusations. The House passed its version of reforms in February. The Senate followed in May.

But negotiations over the final bill stalled as lawmakers debated the best way to hold lawmakers accountable for sexual harassment. Last week, with the end of the legislative session looming, the two chambers reached a compromise.

BLUNT: Madame President I ask unanimous consent that the the bill be considered read for a third time and passed…

Missouri Republican Senator Roy Blunt and Minnesota Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar led the charge in the Senate. The bill passed both chambers via unanimous consent and now awaits President Trump’s expected signature.

Speaking on the Senate floor, Senator Klobuchar said the bill overhauls the status quo.

KLOBUCHAR: This is a bill that fundamentally changes the way sexual harassment cases are handled in the Senate and in the House. The process we have will now protect victims of harassment instead of protecting politicians.

California Democratic Congresswoman Jackie Speier was one of the bill’s lead negotiators on the House side. She told ABC 7 the bill also requires members to personally reimburse victims even after they leave office. Old rules allowed politicians to use a taxpayer-financed settlement fund.

SPEIER: Moving forward, if a member commits sexual harassment and there’s a settlement, no longer are taxpayers going to pay for it. It’s going to come out of the paycheck of that member of Congress.

The bill also requires the disclosure of settlements and calls for the House or Senate ethics committees to review each one. It also makes participating in a mediation process voluntary and offers a confidential adviser to all congressional employees making allegations.

Finally, it changes the allegation reporting process put in place by the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act. That law required a 30-day mandatory mediation and “cooling off period” before a staffer could submit an official complaint. The reforms do away with that waiting period.

Doreen Denny, senior director of government relations for Concerned Women for America, says while the reforms are important, the bill could have gone further.

For one thing, the bill doesn’t require politicians, in or out of office, to retroactively reimburse U.S. taxpayers for previous settlements.  

DENNY: There was $15,000,000 over the last couple of decades that have been of taxpayer money coming out of the treasury to deal with these settlements and there is no requirement in this legislation that those members have to pay that back.

Another shortcoming involves public reports disclosing sexual misconduct settlements. Denny says it isn’t clear those reports will include the specific names of politicians or staffers involved. It will only name the politician’s general office.

DENNY: It does not give specific identities.

The compromise bill also leaves out discrimination settlements based on race and gender.

But as the Me Too movement continues to force American companies and institutions to deal with sexual misconduct, Denny says she’s hopeful this will not be the last time Congress addresses these issues.

DENNY: Hopefully those kinds of measures become deterrent. We really shouldn’t have sexual harassment in the workplace of the United States Congress.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg.

(Glen Stubbe/Star Tribune via AP, File) In this Dec. 28, 2017, file photo, outgoing U.S. Sen. Al Franken speaks about his accomplishments and thanks his team in Minneapolis, as his eight years in the Senate are set to come to an end. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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