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Congress and sexual harassment

In an unusual display of bipartisan cooperation, lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to pass a bill on Feb. 6 that would reform the way that Congress handles allegations of sexual harassment. Backers of the bill include California Democrat Jackie Speier and senior members of the House Administration Committee, but some have criticized the proposed rules because they make it more difficult for members of the public to learn about inappropriate behavior on Capitol Hill and place roadblocks in the way of sexual harassment victims who wish to sue their abusers.

House Speaker Paul Ryan paid no attention to these complaints in a statement that claimed the bill delivered real change. The proposed measures eliminate the need for accusers to attend counseling and mediation sessions for 30 days, and they also task the House Ethics Committee with investigating allegations of sexual misconduct. This worries some analysts because the House Ethics Committee does most of its work behind closed doors and has been reluctant to sanction lawmakers in the past.

Supporters of the bill say that the new system would streamline the process by bypassing the Office of Congressional Ethics, which lacks the authority to issue subpoenas or launch investigations. The ethics watchdog will still become involved under the proposed rules, but this will take place after investigations have been completed and only when a settlement has been reached. Backers of the bill also point out that victims can be represented by legal counsel when appearing before the House Ethics Committee.

Most employers do not conduct their business under the same kind of spotlight as Congress, and their policies for dealing with sexual harassment are often designed to protect corporate reputations and avoid lawsuits rather than provide help to victims. When workers report inappropriate behavior to their supervisors or human resources departments and nothing is done to address the problem, attorneys with experience in this area may suggest that they file a claim with the EEOC or applicable state agency.