After scandals, Congress to make sexual harassment settlements public
A bill awaiting President Trump's signature would ensure that the public in informed of sexual harassment settlements by members of Congress, and would require lawmakers themselves to pay the costs.
WASHINGTON -- When former U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan reached a sexual harassment settlement with a congressional aide, the public didn’t know about it and the amount remained secret, even though it was paid from taxpayer funds.
The Delaware County Republican was one of at least a half-dozen lawmakers who resigned over sexual harassment claims, including several whose undisclosed settlements only emerged through news reports, as the #MeToo movement against harassment and sexual abuse swept the country last year.
A bill that cleared the Senate and House last week would change that.
The measure, with heavy input from U.S. Rep. Bob Brady (D., Pa.), would require that lawmakers repay any harassment settlements and that such agreements be made public once a year. It would not apply to previous settlements.
“This is about respect for the taxpayer, this is about respect for the institution, and this is about respect for our own employees,” Brady said at a news conference in Washington.
He had a key role in shaping the bill as the top Democrat on the House Administration Committee, which oversees employment disputes. The measure is likely the last significant piece of legislation Brady will work on before he leaves office at the end of the year. The bipartisan bill is awaiting President Trump’s signature.
The revamp of sexual harassment rules would also eliminate requirements for a 30-day “cooling off” period and mediation before a congressional employee can file a harassment claim, both of which were seen as roadblocks to those who had been mistreated. Brady urged both of those steps, said Jamie Fleet, his top aide on the committee.
Meehan’s case, stemming from his treatment of a younger aide in 2017, was one of several in the last two years that shined light on taxpayer-funded payments. His settlement was exposed by a New York Times report in January, and the amount, $39,000, was revealed through subsequent reporting by the Inquirer and Daily News.
Meehan denied that he had harassed the young woman, and said he agreed to the settlement to help end the dispute and allow her to move on. He voluntarily repaid the $39,000 and resigned in April — though some other ex-lawmakers have refused to pay back their settlements.
Under the new plan, lawmakers who refuse to reimburse taxpayers could have their wages or Social Security garnished.
The wave of revelations about harassment prompted competing measures to revamp Congress’ sexual harassment procedures. Members of both parties hailed the final product, though it fell short of what some reformers hoped for and left some discrepancies.
In the House, for example, aides who bring harassment claims would receive legal counsel to help them. In the Senate, they would receive advice, but not representation.