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Following Resignations, Congress Works To Improve Process Of Handling Sexual Harassment Allegations

Liam James Doyle
/
NPR
Several members of U.S. Congress have resigned over allegations of sexual harassment, prompting legislation aimed at creating a more transparent and accountable process

Several members of the U.S. Congress have resigned over allegations of sexual harassment, prompting legislation aimed at creating a more transparent and accountable process. The House and Senate have each passed their own versions of the bill, and will have to come to an agreement on a final measure.

Under the current process, a congressional aide who has been the target of unwelcome sexual overtures has had to go through a 30-day counseling period, followed by another 30-day “cooling off” period, before a complaint can go forward to the Office of Congressional Compliance. That long delay has been criticized as a barrier that discourages complaints.

Earlier this year the House passed its version of the legislation, co-sponsored by Maine Republican 2nd District Rep. Bruce Poliquin.

“There can be absolutely, Mr. Speaker, absolutely zero tolerance for sexual harassment, for bullying for intimidation in the workplace,” Poliquin said.

Poliquin declined to be interviewed for this report but a spokesperson said that while Poliquin thinks the House-passed bill is strong, he is willing to look at the Senate measure.

There are similarities in the bills. Both would stop the practice of usingtaxpayer dollars to pay for settlements of complaints against members of Congress.

Independent Sen. Angus King of Maine says that is an important provision.

“If a member of Congress is guilty of some kind of offense in this area, then the taxpayer sure as hell shouldn’t be the ones paying the penalty. It should be out of the pocket of member,” King says.

But the two bills differ on how staff complaints brought against other staff members are handled. The House version would hold an individual staffer found in violation of the law responsible to personally pay for any settlement. The Senate version does not address that issue.

Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine says the Senate bill does more to help victims file their complaints and navigate through the process.

“We also establish a confidential advisor to assist the employee,” Collins says. “That has never been there before.”

Collins points out that the Senate bill was passed unanimously by voice vote. But it has drawn criticism for giving the Senate Ethics Committee, which is comprised of Senate members, the power to review and sign off on any settlement agreements. Critics of that process question whether a sitting senator would impose a financial punishment on a colleague.

Maine 1st District Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat, says it is important that an effective compromise be worked out.

“There are good things in both bills,” Pingree says. “But the most important thing is that we get this bill passed on both sides, because we need to have relief for the people who are challenged or afraid to come forward, or don’t feel they have enough assistance when they do.”

House leaders are saying they believe the House bill is better, and may not even consider the Senate-passed bill. Senators point to the unanimous vote as a sign of support for their version. Senate leaders have not scheduled the House bill for consideration, and a conference committee to work out the differences has yet to be named.

This story was originally published July 3, 2018 at 4:07 p.m. ET.

Journalist Mal Leary spearheads Maine Public's news coverage of politics and government and is based at the State House.