U.S. Congress passes bill to make members pay sexual misconduct claims

Both House and Senate approve bipartisan measure

U.S. Congress passes bill to make members pay sexual misconduct claims
A protester sits on the lap of "Lady Justice" on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court building as demonstrators storm the steps and doors of the Supreme Court during Judge Brett Kavanaugh's swearing-in ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington, Oct. 6. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

WASHINGTON (Reuters) — U.S. lawmakers on Thursday passed legislation to crack down on sexual harassment by members of Congress, requiring lawmakers to pay for settlements and some court awards themselves, instead of depending on public funds.

Both the House of Representatives and the Senate approved the bipartisan measure on a voice vote after months of effort produced a compromise between the two chambers.

It now goes to the White House for President Donald Trump to sign into law. Trump himself has faced multiple accusations of sexual misconduct.

"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," one of the House co-sponsors, Representative Jackie Speier, a Democrat, told reporters.

"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," she said.

Congress acted more than a year after the #MeToo battle began against sexual harassment of women. Hundreds of high-profile men around the world have been fired or have resigned from their jobs in politics, media, entertainment and business after facing allegations of sexually harassing or assaulting women and men.

Over the past year, several U.S. lawmakers have left office following sexual misconduct allegations, including Democratic Senator Al Franken, Democratic Representative John Conyers, and Republican Representatives Trent Franks and Blake Farenthold. They all denied the allegations.

Under the legislation, lawmaker liability would be capped at US$300,000 when a court has assessed the damages, but there would be no limit on lawmaker liability for settlements. Currently, the money is paid from taxpayer-funded accounts.

The legislation says Congress must also regularly report and publish settlements, a departure from past practices in which settlements were secret.

Farenthold left Congress in April, several months after Politico reported he settled a sexual harassment lawsuit with taxpayer funds.

He denied wrongdoing, but pledged to pay the money back.

The bill takes other steps to strengthen worker protections for congressional employees, such as eliminating month-long periods for "counseling" and "cooling off" that were required of employees who made harassment claims.

Speier said she and Representative Bradley Byrne, a Republican, will file another bill next year to make lawmakers personally liable for awards or settlements related to civil rights discrimination, in addition to sexual harassment.

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