By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News
Congress has reached a landmark agreement on a bill to overhaul the process for handling sexual misconduct allegations within its halls.
Alabama Congressman Bradley Byrne played a key role in updating the decades-old Congressional Accountability Act, which governs how lawmakers and aides report sexual misconduct claims. The law has been widely criticized as confusing, cumbersome and unfair to victims of harassment and abuse.
When faced with updating the law, House leaders called on Byrne’s experience in labor and employment law prior to his entry into politics.
“I am very pleased we have reached this bipartisan, bicameral agreement to fundamentally reform how we handle employment law claims in the Legislative Branch,” Byrne told Alabama Daily News.
“No longer will Congressional staff be subjected to an unfair and archaic process and no longer will taxpayers be asked to foot the bill for anonymous sexual harassment settlements committed by Members of Congress.”
The push for the legislation took on new urgency in the past year, as more than a half-dozen lawmakers resigned amid allegations of sexual misconduct and Capitol Hill found itself squarely at the center of the growing #MeToo movement.
As the lead Republican negotiation the bill, Byrne found a perhaps unlikely ally in Democratic Rep. Jackie Spier of California. The two testified before the House Administration Committee in November 2017 about the need to overhaul Congress’ sexual harassment policies and began finding common ground.
The House passed a reform bill in February and the Senate followed suit in May. However, House members argued the Senate’s version was weaker, partly due to limits on lawmaker liability.
The final version holds lawmakers, including those who leave office, financially liable for settlements resulting from all types of harassment and retaliation, but doesn’t cover discrimination claims. It also eliminates mandatory counseling, mediation and the “cooling off” period victims are currently required to wait before filing a lawsuit or requesting an administrative hearing.
Byrne credited Speier as well as other House leaders with finding a way forward on the final bill.
“I appreciate the efforts of Speaker Ryan, Chairman Harper, Ranking Member Brady, Rep. Speier, and our colleagues in the Senate to get this bill across the finish line.”
The bill requires public reporting of settlements, including identifying lawmakers who are personally liable, and extends protections to include interns, fellows and other staff. House staffers will have access to legal representation, while Senate staffers will be given access to a confidential advocate able to offer legal advice but not act as a representative.
Speier says she’s working with House Democrats and Republicans to introduce a separate bill next Congress to go further into liability and process issues. Speier became a poster child for the #MeToo movement and champion of anti-harassment legislation on Capitol Hill after sharing her own story of being sexually assaulted by a high-ranking aide when she was a young staffer.
“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,” Speier said. “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.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., along with Committee on House Administration leadership, released a joint statement Wednesday praising the bill but acknowledging that more work lies ahead.
“The agreement reflects the first set of comprehensive reforms that have been made to the Congressional Accountability Act since 1995,” it reads. “We believe this is a strong step toward creating a new standard in Congress that will set a positive example in our nation, but there is still more work to be done.”
The statement says members of both caucuses “remain committed to working in a bipartisan manner to address outstanding issues.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.