As the Senate grapples with allegations of sexual misconduct by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, the bill that would establish a new, modernized sexual-harassment policy for Congress remains stalled.
The House and Senate scrambled to bring their own policies up to code in the era of #MeToo after a series of high-profile sexual-misconduct allegations—including the revelation that lawmakers were using taxpayer funds to settle harassment claims—rocked Capitol Hill and led to the resignations of several sitting members of Congress.
The House and the Senate passed two different bills earlier this year—but months after those votes, lawmakers are doubtful that they can reconcile the two pieces of legislation before the midterm elections.
“Here on Thursday, there is this very high-profile hearing and questions of sexual harassment, and yet Congress is allowing this bill to deal with sexual harassment in Congress [to languish],” said Meredith McGehee, the executive director at Issue One, a government watchdog group that advocates for stronger ethics laws.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), who along with Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) is overseeing the process of reconciling the House and Senate versions, predicted that the effort would not be completed before the midterm elections.
“[The] discussion continues to be active,” he told The Daily Beast. “I think we’ll get this done, but I do not think we’ll get it done before the election.”
Blunt noted that while the Senate has been in session for much of the past few months, the House was on recess in August and was also off last week, leaving few opportunities for both sides to meet.
There are areas of agreement, though. Both bills eliminate what amounts to a 90-day waiting period for an accuser to seek a hearing for a complaint. Under current law, taxpayers are on the hook for settlements between an accuser and a lawmaker, and the House Administration Committee said earlier this year that the Treasury Department had paid $200,000 over the past 20 years for sexual-harassment settlements. Both pieces of legislation require that a lawmaker who enters into a settlement be held personally financially responsible.
But the main sticking point, according to a congressional staffer with knowledge of the negotiations, is the House bill’s stricter provisions for making lawmakers personally financially liable for both harassment and discrimination, while the Senate version, passed in May, only includes harassment. The Senate version has also been criticized for narrowing the definition of harassment and creating ways for members to skirt the rules.
A spokeswoman for the House Administration Committee declined to address the hang-ups in the ongoing negotiations with the Senate, only providing a statement that amounted to a timeline of the process.
McGehee said lawmakers were likely waiting until after the midterms to spare themselves political repercussions if the final product is viewed as weak.
“This is something that members should do willingly and gladly to make sure there is public confidence that the institution is dealing with these issues in the most effective way,” she said. “They are basically AWOL.”
The now-stalled push to update Congress’ policies came after then-Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) and then-Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) both announced their intentions to resign last December after allegations of misconduct. In 2015, Conyers settled a sexual-misconduct complaint for $27,000 in taxpayer funds.
In April, Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-PA) resigned after it was revealed that he, too, used taxpayer funds to settle a sexual-harassment allegation. He pledged to pay the $39,000 used to settle the case back to taxpayers. The government also had to cover $84,000 for a sexual-harassment settlement involving then-Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-TX). Farenthold initially said he’d pay the government back, but months after resigning in disgrace he has yet to do so.
Lawmakers’ patience is growing thin.
“It’s extremely frustrating. It’s something we’ve got to get done. I’m urging everybody to figure this out. I’ve been telling [the negotiators], get this done,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), who was first elected in 1992’s “year of the woman,” told The Daily Beast.