Just about a year ago, several members of Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, had to resign after facing sexual harassment allegations. Those leaving included Senator Al Franken and Representatives John Conyers, Blake Farenthold, Patrick Meehan, and Trent Franks.
Perhaps they were lucky to leave when they did, because a bill passed in December, the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 Reform Act, requires that lawmakers pay settlements out of their own pocket for sexual harassment or retaliation. Since 2003, approximately $300,000 was paid by taxpayers to settle sexual harassment cases involving 13 lawmakers, including $84,000 paid out to settle an accusation of sexual harassment against Farenthold.
Funds came from accounts available to members of Congress to pay for employee salaries and expenses. Not only does the bill force members of Congress to pay for these settlements themselves, but if they don’t have the funds, it allows the garnishment of their government salaries. President Trump, no stranger to sexual harassment accusations, is expected to sign the bill into law.
More Protection for Vulnerable Workers
On Capitol Hill, interns, and fellows were among the staff most vulnerable to sexual harassment, because they were not included in the original 1995 bill. The new bill rectifies that omission. The new legislation also gets rid of a mandatory 30-day period for “cooling off” before a complaint is filed, as well as mandatory counseling and counseling for the accuser. An accuser would have the option to work remotely or ask for paid leave.
Any settlement involving a member of Congress will become public when the settlement occurs, and the public will have access to an annual review of such settlements. If the case goes to court and a jury decides to award the plaintiff, the award is capped at $300,000 as far as member liability. However, there is no member cap for settlements, and if the person leaves office, the liability follows them. While the bill holds members of Congress liable for sexually harassing behavior, it does not extend personal financial liability to Congressional staff members.
Although the new bill is a vast improvement over the version passed nearly 24 years ago, it still falls short in various areas. While the House version would have made members of Congress financially liable for discrimination settlements, the Senate’s version only included harassment.
Victims of Congressional sexual harassment are still not guaranteed legal representation, although government lawyers might advise them. Accused members of Congress do have lawyers available to them, while the victims would have to hire their own counsel. Incoming House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi said these and other aspects of the bill may be revisited in 2019.
The bill works differently for representatives and Senators. Senators who settled with their accusers do not automatically have to pay the U.S. Treasury – which makes the settlement payments so there is no delay – back. Instead, the Senate Ethics Committee evaluates any claims and decides whether a Senator is personally liable financially.
Do you think were harassed at work or by a co-worker? Visit our workplace harassment FAQ page for more information. Ready to see if you have a case? Contact us online or by phone at 877.858.8018. All inquiries are protected by the attorney-client privilege and kept CONFIDENTIAL. (There is never a fee for a consultation.)