Congress Under Pressure to End Culture of Secrecy over Sexual Harassment

Members of both parties are urging Congress to put an end to Capitol Hill’s secrecy regarding sexual harassment. They are calling on lawmakers to review how Congress handles sexual misconduct claims, as well as to reveal those who have paid settlements with taxpayer money.

The Sunday debate resulted in Representative John Conyers Jr. resigning from his post, after it was disclosed he was among lawmakers who have paid such settlements.

Conyers, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said he would step aside temporarily, while allegations made against him are being investigated by the House Ethics Committee. He has been accused of sexually harassing aides, but he denied the allegations.

Senator Al Franken, on the other hand, has not announced his resignation, but rather said that although he was “embarrassed and ashamed” he would return to work. He added that in the future he would be “more careful and sensitive.”

While both Democrats and Republicans called for a more transparent handling of sexual harassment complaints, lawyers for the Congress have demanded that both these complaints and settlements stay confidential, as stipulated by a 1995 law.

“All of this, as difficult as it is in some respects for our society, is really important because I think it will end up changing people’s attitudes and changing our culture. So, I am glad it is being discussed. I think it should be more transparent,” said Republican Senator Rob Portman.

The House is expected to adopt a resolution identical to that of the Senate, making it obligatory for all members and their staff to take part in sexual harassment prevention training. However, overhauling the handling of claims is expected to be much more difficult.

Representatives Jackie Speier and Barbara Comstock have led a bipartisan group in the House requiring that legislation is passed to make handling claims public.

“It was a system set up in 1995 to protect the harasser. We say zero tolerance, but I don’t believe that we put our money where our mouths are,” Speier said.

It is unclear whether the legislation would apply retroactively, although it will cover all settlements reached this year. Lawmakers are divided in expressing support of retroactive releases, with some claiming it could lead to exposing victims who prefer their identities to stay secret.

The House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi was among those who maintained that it should be up to victims to decide whether they want to remain private. Debra Katz who represents sexual harassment victims also expressed concerns, pointing out her clients don’t want their identities to be revealed as “it could have life-altering consequences.”

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