- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Senators announced a bipartisan deal Wednesday to force more transparency onto lawmakers accused of sexual harassment or predatory behavior, responding to scandals that forced several members of Congress to resign.

Sens. Roy Blunt and Amy Klobuchar, who worked out the agreement, said Capitol Hill is not immune to workplace harassment but has long lacked the kinds of protections for complainants.

The new policy creates a system to better track complaints, requires a workplace culture survey to evaluate the extent of problems and demands any settlements be paid out of senators’ own funds and be publicly reported.

The policy also scraps a 30-day “cooling off” period senators had imposed on victims before they could demand action on their complaints.

“For too long victims of workplace harassment in the Senate have been forced into a process that is stacked against them,” Ms. Klobuchar said in a statement.

The new rules will have to pass the Senate, but leaders said they expect that to be easy.

“With this agreement, both parties are coming together to update the laws governing how the Congress addresses workplace claims and protecting staff and others from harassment. We’re optimistic that after our members review the legislation, this bill will pass the Senate in short order,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a joint statement.

As reports of sexual assault and harassment among major Hollywood and news media figures broke last year, Congress also came under scrutiny.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer funds have been used to settle sexual harassment claims since 2003. Among them were former Rep. Blake Farenthold, whose office arranged for taxpayers to pay $84,000 to settle allegations against him, and former Rep. John Conyers Jr., who paid $27,000 from his taxpayer-funded office budget to settle a claim. Both resigned, as did Sen. Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat who faced multiple accusations of groping women.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat who was one of those pushing Mr. Franken to resign, said the new agreement is a first step.

“By passing this reform, we can finally make sure that when a member of Congress sexually harasses or discriminates against someone on their staff, the taxpayers are not left holding the bag,” she said in a statement.

Women’s groups said the changes should have been made earlier. The Senate’s 30-day cooling off period came in for criticism, with advocates saying it was effectively an intimidation tactic.

“Its sole purpose is to provide for a delay, in hopes that the victim will lose the strength to bring the complaint forward,” said Donna Lent, president of the National Women’s Political Caucus.

The House passed its own anti-harassment bill three months ago, and activists wondered why the Senate was delaying.

The Senate’s new version is similar to the House bill, although it gives accusers 90 days to take action in federal court compared to 45 days in the House bill.

The bills will need to be reconciled before going to President Trump.

Susan Bisom-Rapp, associate dean at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, who has written about workplace laws, said part of Congress’s problem has been heavy male dominance.

“Researchers tell us that harassment is rife in environments where men predominate in numerical terms,” she said. “The current composition of our political elite presents an enormous challenge to those serious about eliminating harassment. That’s not an excuse for doing nothing. But it does mean that current leadership will need to commit to a significant cultural shift.”

Melissa Richmond, vice president at Running Start, a nonpartisan group that helps women of both parties run for office, said Capitol Hill needs training in how men and women interact in the workplace.

Ms. Richmond wrote about her experience with retired Rep. Trent Franks in The Washington Post late last year. His office had offered her a summer internship during her first year of law school, but when she declined to go to his house for a “final one-on-one interview” on a Sunday evening, he suddenly said he didn’t have an internship available.

She decided not to file a complaint and said she didn’t feel comfortable coming forward with the story until recently.

Mr. Franks, Arizona Republican, resigned last year after reports he approached two female staffers about being surrogate mothers to children for himself and his wife.

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