Time's Running Short For Congress's Sexual Harassment Bill Leaders have vowed to pass a bill changing how Congress handles claims, but the House and Senate versions have big differences. Taxpayers are still paying for settlements involving lawmakers.
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Time Is Running Short For Congress' Sexual Harassment Bill

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Time Is Running Short For Congress' Sexual Harassment Bill

Time Is Running Short For Congress' Sexual Harassment Bill

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

For months, Congress has promised to overhaul how it handles allegations of sexual misconduct against its own. But for all the energy around the Me Too movement, nothing has changed on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers say they will pass something in this lame-duck session. As NPR congressional reporter Kelsey Snell explains, time is running out.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Back in 2013, Lauren Greene loved working in Congress until, she says, her boss, former Republican Congressman Blake Farenthold of Texas, harassed her. It got even worse when she tried to file a complaint using a system that only exists for Congress.

LAUREN GREENE: You just kind of feel like the power is stacked against you, the odds are stacked against you. It was incredibly isolating. It was just a very difficult time.

SNELL: Farenthold is accused of making explicit sexual remarks to staffers, talking about their appearance and their bodies - all accusations he denies, though he did eventually step down. And Greene was sent to the Office of Compliance, an obscure part of Congress, to start a secretive process that dragged on for months.

She ended up hiring a lawyer and settled with Farenthold. But in the process, she missed out on jobs. She had to move and was made to sign a nondisclosure agreement that kept her from talking to anyone about the case, even her mom

GREENE: Kind of looking back on it, it was sad that I didn't even know what my rights were at the time.

SNELL: The process was so opaque that since 1997, Congress has spent at least $15 million to settle complaints about harassment or discrimination, a fact that didn't even come to light until late last year at the height of the Me Too movement. Earlier this year, the House and Senate each easily passed very different bills to change the system.

For instance, the House would hold members personally liable for many accusations. The Senate wouldn't. They disagree about who should run the investigations, how long they should take and if there should be a cap on how much can be paid in damages. But negotiators like Republican Senator Roy Blunt say they're nearing a deal, and something has to happen this year so lawmakers know what to expect.

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ROY BLUNT: I think it's really important to start the next Congress with a clear understanding of what their responsibilities are and what their liabilities are.

SNELL: There's additional pressure because more than half a dozen members have resigned or have been accused of sexual misconduct in the past year alone. California Congresswoman Jackie Speier has helped lead the negotiations for Democrats in the House. And she says the two sides agree on major things, like providing legal representation for accusers and launching mandatory training for staff and members.

JACKIE SPEIER: We're changing the dynamic so dramatically and protecting the staffers on Capitol Hill for the first time in a meaningful way.

SNELL: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi says she realizes the final bill might fall short, but she says the House can fill in the gaps later.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NANCY PELOSI: We then can pass bills ourselves that apply to the House, and I think that would put some pressure on the Senate to do the same.

SNELL: That's not good enough for many advocates and harassment victims. Greene's attorney, Les Alderman, says he worries that some in Congress will just declare victory and move on.

LES ALDERMAN: I think people are going to lose the will to take on the big changes, and they'll also lose the public pressure to do so.

SNELL: Greene says she's worried that Congress won't do enough, particularly when it comes to making sure that a person making the accusations has control over how much information is made public. But she's glad that Congress realizes the system that they have now isn't right and isn't fair.

GREENE: I wouldn't be able to sleep at night knowing that there was another staffer out there who was also dealing with this.

SNELL: Lawmakers say they hope a compromise can pass in the next few weeks to make sure that a new law is in place before the new Congress takes office in January. Kelsey Snell, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF THOM SONNY GREEN'S "VIENNA")

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