House and Senate negotiators are nearing a deal to significantly rewrite Capitol Hill’s workplace discrimination rules in the hopes of attaching it to a must-pass funding bill in the next two weeks.
A sweeping overhaul of the Hill’s system to address sexual harassment and other workplace misconduct passed the House easily early last month and would serve as the baseline for the proposal, according to aides briefed on the plan.
While the House advanced some of its proposed reforms in a resolution that took effect right away for the chamber, the Senate has struggled to take action — leaving broader harassment policy unaddressed despite inadequacies decried by both parties.
The Senate has been working the past week to make some changes to the House bill, including doubling the amount of time congressional employees would be given to file a harassment claim from 45 days to 90 days.
Other provisions in the House bill would require lawmakers found personally liable for harassment to repay the cost of settlements out of pocket, instead of relying on taxpayer money. It would also eliminate a requirement of mandatory counseling and mediation before victims can file a workplace misconduct claim.
Most of the Senate’s tweaks to the House bill are not substantial, aides say, and lawmakers involved in the talks are eyeing the upcoming government funding bill as their best chance to push through the rules overhaul without too much resistance.
“I think it’s the best shot we got,” Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.), one of the lead House negotiators, said in an interview last week.
While the House easily passed a bill to combat sexual harassment in February via voice vote, the Senate has yet to move a proposal of its own. Some lawmakers and aides are pessimistic that the Senate can pass a standalone bill.
“We sat down and explained to them why we did certain things the way we did them in our bill,” Byrne said of recent discussions with the Senate. “I think they were satisfied that we’d gone through a very thorough process in weighing how to do it.”
While Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) doesn’t sit on the Rules Committee, which is debating the issue, he’s among the senior senators in both parties asking Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to advance legislation soon.
Grassley, a lead author of the 1995 law that first subjected congressional employees to workplace safety rules, is sponsoring a Senate counterpart to the House-passed harassment legislation.
Grassley's version of the workplace misconduct legislation would also beef up protections against employment discrimination based on genetic information, a proposal aides said they thought would be included in the final version. Separately, Senate negotiators double the time period that congressional employees would have to file a claim to 90 days.
Grassley said last week that he would be pleased to see the agreement attached to this month’s spending bill. “There’s no reason why I would disagree with what the House did,” Grassley told reporters. “And I don’t need an extended debate on it.”
Congressional negotiators have spent the last several weeks hammering out details of a plan to fund the government through September. Lawmakers have until March 23 to renew government funding, but the House could take action as soon as this week.
House appropriators are hoping to release the spending bill’s text on Wednesday with a vote in the lower chamber as soon as Friday. Since the funding bill is likely the last piece of major legislation that Congress will consider before the midterms in November, lawmakers involved in the sexual harassment talks see it as their best chance to address the issue this year.
Sexual harassment issues have led to the resignation or retirement of a half-dozen members of Congress in recent months. The House took action in early February to overhaul the process for addressing sexual harassment claims, which lawmakers admitted was badly in need of an update since the rules were first put into place more than two decades ago.
Other provisions in the House bill would prohibit lawmakers from dating members of their staff and require the Office of Compliance, which oversees harassment claims, to notify the House Ethics Committee of any accusations against lawmakers or senior staffers.
The bill also would require twice-yearly reporting on taxpayer-funded harassment settlements by the compliance office, which would be renamed the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights, and a public report on the total amount of taxpayer money used to pay previous settlements.
It remains unclear how the Senate would handle the immediate rules changes that the House enacted with its internal resolution, which passed last month alongside the legislation. The House-only changes in that resolution include the creation of an employee advocacy office to represent victims and a prohibition on lawmakers using their taxpayer-funded office accounts to pay out settlements.
Former Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Rep. Pat Meehan (R-Pa.), who is retiring this year, both used their office accounts to secretly settle sexual harassment claims with female employees on their payrolls.
The public report mandated by the House-passed bill would include total misconduct settlement payments from lawmakers’ office accounts. Those have previously gone unreported. The identities of individual members of Congress linked to the payments, however, would not be disclosed.
Another lawmaker who used taxpayer funds to resolve a former aide’s sexual harassment claim, retiring Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas), initially said he would repay the U.S. Treasury for the $84,000 settlement.
Citing advice from his attorney, Farenthold has since decided to delay that repayment until the Senate acts on the House-passed legislation — which could mean his bill would come due this month.