Politics

Ethics Committee Cites ‘Recent Experience’ as Need for Sexual Harassment Overhaul

Panel suggests difficulty obtaining information from the Office of Compliance

The House Ethics Committee is urging quick passage of legislation to address sexual harassment. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The 10 members of the House Ethics Committee are urging the top four congressional leaders to quickly pass anti-sexual harassment legislation to overhaul the Congressional Accountability Act, noting the House bill would provide solutions to problems the panel has encountered this year. 

In a letter dated Monday that all members signed, they cite the House bill’s provision that would require the Office of Compliance, which would be renamed the Office of Workplace Rights, to refer certain matters to the committee, providing the panel access to any records regarding investigations, hearings, decisions, settlements or claims.

“In light of our recent experience seeking information from OOC, we believe these changes are necessary to clarify interactions between the ethics committees and OOC,” the Ethics members wrote. 

Another provision of the House bill they cite in the letter is the requirement that members who’ve settled employee claims using funds from their member allowances reimburse the Treasury for those settlements within 90 days, regardless of whether they remain in Congress. 

“Recent matters before the committee illustrate the need for these provisions,” the Ethics members wrote, seemingly referring to former Texas Rep. Blake Farenthold never repaying the Treasury for a $84,000 sexual harassment settlement he made using taxpayer dollars. 

The House bill would make members personally liable for settlements made in relation to their conduct, transactions that would trigger mandatory referrals to the Ethics committees. The members would be liable for the settlements regardless of the outcome of the ethics investigations. 

While the House Ethics Committee obviously favors the House bill overhauling the CAA, they noted the Senate has passed its own version but Congress has yet to reconcile the two and no further action as been taken on either measure. 

“Members and employees alike should be able to work free from sexual harassment or discrimination of any kind,” the panel members write. “The American public must also have confidence that we in Congress not only view these issues with the seriousness they demand — but that we are taking action.”

Congress only has three legislative weeks scheduled between now and the end of the year in which either bill will still be active. If the matter spills into the 116th Congress, the chambers would need to pass new legislation. 

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