Members of Congress will no longer be able to rely on taxpayer money to settle sexual harassment and sexual misconduct claims, thanks to legislation passed just this week.
The Huffington Post reports that the final version of the bill passed Thursday, "sailing" through the House and Senate by unanimous consent, and will be on President Donald Trump's desk awaiting a signature by the end of this week.
“Time is finally up for members of Congress who think that they can sexually harass and get away with it. They will no longer be able to slink away with no one knowing that they have harassed. ... They will pay back the U.S. Treasury,” Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA), one of the primary sponsors of the bill told reporters on Thursday, according to Reuters.
The bill has been in the works for a while, as Speier pointed out in her speech: “We want to thank 1,500 former staff members of Congress who wrote a letter to us who made the case all too clear, that sexual harassment in Congress was a huge problem."
Speier and bipartisan group of congressional leaders began drafting the bill last year after the "#MeToo" movement exploded across social media, ensnaring powerful men in Hollywood, in the media, and even in the federal government. Both Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) and Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-TX) resigned their positions in Congress after past indiscretions came to light in late 2017 and early 2018.
Now, thanks to the legislation, senators and representatives will be required to pay out of pocket for settlements with former staffers and aides who accuse them of sexual misconduct and will not be allowed to rely on taxpayer money to defend themselves in lawsuits brought by former colleagues.
Farenthold, for example, spent more than $84,000 in federal money defending himself against a suit brought by a former legislative director who claimed the then-congressman used inappropriate, sexually charged language in an interaction (another aide also claimed Farenthold created an unsafe work environment through his sexualized language and foul exploits).
The Huffington Post reports that the bill goes a bit further than just limiting cash flow, reforming a grievance reporting system mired in the 1990s: "Under the current law, which has been in place since 1995, Capitol Hill staffers who claim they’ve been harassed or discriminated against have to undergo counseling, mandatory arbitration and a 30-day 'cooling off' period before going to court. They won’t have to do any of that anymore."
The bill doesn't accomplish everything Speier set out to do. The provisions within the bill are limited to sexual harassment claims and sexual misconduct claims only — not claims of discrimination, even if those claims are sexual in nature. The bill also does not provide representation to alleged victims free of charge. Although those two requests were in the House version of the bill, Senate leadership encouraged the bill's authors to pursue those objectives in separate legislation.
The law also isn't retroactive, so although former Rep. Farnthold pledged to return the $84,000 he used to defend himself — something he has yet to do — it's probably a lost cause for taxpayers.