Over the past year, the #MeToo movement has forced many industries to grapple with how to prevent harassment—and the American government was not exempt from this reckoning. Now, thanks to a new bill, members of Congress could be required to pay their own settlements to sexual harassment victims. This is a big step forward in terms of how we handle accusers, who far too often get off with lenient fines or, worse, no fines or sentences at all.
The Associated Press reports that on December 13th, the Senate passed a bill that would require legislators—even those who leave office—to pay any retaliation or harassment settlements against them. The bill abolishes both mandatory counseling for victims and a waiting period before lawsuits can be filed. It requires details of the settlements, including the identification of liable lawmakers, to be published. The new policy also allows staffers access to a confidential adviser.
However (and unfortunately), this bill does not include discrimination settlements, which still do not have to be paid by the accused lawmakers themselves.
Both chambers of Congress have passed the bill, and next it will go to President Donald Trump, who will likely sign it into law.
Previously, under the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995, lawmakers could use funds from the Office of the Treasury to pay settlements, rather than their own money. This means that the new rules would mark a huge change in the way the federal government handles harassment accusations against its employees.
Harassment on Capitol Hill has long been a pervasive issue, but in the past, it was remarkably hard to file complaints. A 2016 CQ Roll Call survey found that only 10% of female respondents felt there was an adequate system in place for reporting sexual harassment on the Hill.
We’re hopeful that these new policies will make it much easier to report sexual harassment and abuse within government offices, and hold Congress members accountable for their behavior. And with any luck, this is just the beginning.