Lawmakers pass bill to address sexual harassment in Congress

Media outlets in Tennessee and around the country have covered several stories concerning lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle who have been accused of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior. The rules dealing with the way these allegations are handled have been criticized for lacking transparency and being unfairly harsh on victims, and the House of Representatives addressed these concerns on Feb. 6 by overwhelmingly passing legislation that would reform them.

The current rules for handling allegations of workplace sexual harassment in Congress were established by the Congressional Accountability Act in 1995. The House bill would eliminate mandatory 30-day counseling for victims and streamline the reporting process, but it has been questioned in some circles for designating the House Ethics Committee rather than the Office of Congressional Ethics to investigate allegations. Critics point out that the House Ethics Committee has sometimes been reluctant to sanction lawmakers in the past, and they say that the committee's activities are rarely disclosed to the public.

Supporters of the bill say that the Office of Congressional Ethics lacks the authority to issue subpoenas and allegations that had merit would have to be referred to the House Ethics Committee anyway. They also maintain that the House Ethics Committee would be a more appropriate venue because victims may be represented by legal counsel when appearing before it. The passing of the bill comes just months after bipartisan resolutions were adopted that require lawmakers, their staffs and interns to take part in anti-discrimination and anti-harassment training.

The policies put into place by employers for dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace are sometimes designed to avoid legal entanglements rather than deal with the problem. Attorneys with experience in this area may understand this, and they could suggest that victims seek qualified legal advice before entering into agreements that could make pursuing civil remedies more difficult.

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