House aides will have more protection than Senate aides in sexual harassment bill

After months of pressure from the #MeToo movement, embarrassing revelations about staff harassment incidents and reluctance among some members of Congress to act, lawmakers Wednesday came up a fractured response.

House staff members will have better protection against sexual harassment than Senate staffers.

Lawmakers agreed on almost all points except a big one, according to Rep. Jackie Speier, D-California, a key player in the frustrating movement to get Congress to act.

Under the plan, which Congress is expected to adopt this week, House aides will be provided with legal representation if they accuse a lawmaker of harassment.

Senate aides will not.

Instead, the Senate will provide an attorney to the potential victim. That attorney can give limited legal advice, but cannot legally represent them.

That means Senate aides will have to find their own costly legal representation as they initiate challenges against their own bosses, who undoubtedly will have deeper pockets and more connections than their aides.

“As word gets out that the House is providing legal counsel for victims who come forward but that the Senate is not I suspect Senators will come to understand the critical nature of this issue more clearly,” Speier said. “Having spoken with many survivors, the process of going up against a lawyer for the institution and the harasser was as traumatic, if not more traumatic, than the abuse they suffered.”

Anna Kain, a former congressional staffer who was harassed by another staffer in the office of retiring Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-Connecticut, said throughout her ordeal she had to hire two attorneys. She said she could only afford them because of help from her parents.

“There’s just no way I would have been able to afford an attorney when I worked on the Hill,” Kain said. “A staffer’s inability to afford that type of expense should never be a detriment to his or her ability to come forward.”

The bill will represent a full overhaul of how Congress handles allegations of sexual harassment in its own halls.

House members and senators will have to pay out of pocket if they settle with victims over harassment or retaliation claims against them, even after they leave office. Discrimination claims will not be included in the bill. All settlements have to be publicly disclosed.

“No more mandatory remediation, no more cooling off period, no more nondisclosure agreement requirements,” Speier said, referring to current mandatory parts of the process that victims said put them at a disadvantage. “It applies to interns and fellows as well.”

There have been several cases of people accusing senators and members of Congress of harassment. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minnesota, resigned earlier this year after multiple women accused him of groping and unwelcome behavior before he was elected to the Senate.

Rep. Blake Fahrenthold, R-Texas, had an aide accuse him of harassment and taxpayers paid an $84,000 settlement on his behalf. Fahrenthold vowed to repay the settlement, but still has not done so after he resigned his seat in April.

House and Senate members were at a stalemate for months, as House members pushed the Senate to accept their more victim-friendly legislation. The Senate gave in to most House points with only a couple weeks to spare in this Congress. If they hadn’t agreed, lawmakers in the next Congress would have to start anew.

Les Alderman, an attorney who specializes in sexual harassment cases in Congress, warned in October that setting up two separate systems would make it more difficult for staff to navigate.

He said most the of the employees he represents interact with members from both chambers, including maintenance staff and Library of Congress personnel.

“Having this kind of turf battle between the Senate and the House … just makes it more confusing,” Alderman said at the time.

Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, the bill’s top Senate advocates, said it was important to them to have the bill done before the next Congress came in 2019.

“It was incumbent on us to get this done so when they get here the rules are better and we can start on some of the other issues we have to take on, instead of having this be the first thing,” Klobuchar said.

Bryan Lowry of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

Kate Irby is based in Washington, D.C. and reports on issues important to McClatchy’s California newspapers, including the Sacramento Bee, Fresno Bee and Modesto Bee. She previously reported on breaking news in D.C., politics in Florida for the Bradenton Herald and politics in Ohio for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.