- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 14, 2017

A bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill that would overhaul Congress‘ response to sexual harassment claims by workers on Capitol Hill, including forcing lawmakers to pay settlements out of their own pockets.

The legislation seeks to tackle a spate of sexual harassment complaints that has been gnawing at lawmakers and spurred resignations by Sen. Al Franken and Rep. John Conyers Jr., both Democrats, after they were accused of sexual misbehavior.

Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrats who long has championed sexual assault victims, and Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, led 18 colleagues in introducing the bill that was dubbed the “Bipartisan Congressional Harassment Reform Act.”

Lawmakers, including Mr. Conyers, were able to keep sexual harassment accusation quiet due to the byzantine process of handling complaints through Congress’ Office of Compliance, which not only hushed it up but also paid out settlements with taxpayer money.

Lawmakers found other ways to hush up misbehavior in the workplace.

Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, Arizona Democrat, quietly arranged a “severance package” in 2015 for a female staffers who threaten a lawsuit over his alleged frequent drunkenness and creating a hostile workplace environment.

In that case, the House Employment Counsel, which acts as the lawyer for all House offices, negotiated a deal that saw taxpayers pay $48,395 — five additional months’ salary — to the female aide, who left her job after less than three months, The Washington Times first reported.

The new legislation went after the Office of Compliance. It would rename the office as Office of Congressional Workplace Rights, make sexual harassment training mandatory, give workers more control in the complaint process and make lawmakers pay the settlements.

It also would requires settlement of workplace harassment or discrimination be approved by the Senate or House Ethics Committee and that all settlements be publicly disclosed, unless the victims choose to keep them private.

Congress should never be above the law or play by their own set of rules,” Ms. Gillibrand said. “We should treat every person who works here with respect and dignity, and that means creating a climate where there is accountability, fairness, respect, and access to justice if sexual harassment takes place.”

Mr. Cruz said he was appalled by the wave of sexual harassment claims sweeping the country, from Hollywood to Capitol Hill.

Congress is not above the laws, and secret settlements with taxpayer money to cover up harassment should no longer be tolerated,” Mr. Cruz said. “This legislation seeks to empower victims of harassment to report those crimes and to hold the perpetrators accountable.”

The Office of Compliance over the past 20 years paid out $17.2 million to settle 264 complaints of sexual harassment and other workplace violations on Capitol Hill, The Washington Post reported last month.

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