Last year, the country was shocked to learn terrible stories of sexual harassment taking place in the halls of Congress. The stories themselves were horrific, but even worse was the fact that some Members of Congress used taxpayer money to pay settlements.
Prior to coming to Congress, I worked for thirty years as a labor and employment attorney in Alabama, so I have a background in these issues. I advised clients on how to prevent sexual harassment and how to navigate the process if a harassment claim was made.
Quite frankly, I was shocked to see how complicated the Congressional process for handling sexual harassment and other employment law claims was. Even worse, I was flabbergasted to learn that Members of Congress were able to use taxpayer money to pay the settlements and the information was held secret from the American people.
The process was so fundamentally different from how businesses in the private sector have handled sexual harassment and other employment law claims for decades. It just did not make sense.
Congress should not have special perks or benefits that other Americans don’t have. So, I reached out to the House Administration Committee and some of my colleagues to work on legislation to fix the problem and ensure a fair and transparent process.
I worked hand-in-hand with a number of my colleagues from the other side of the aisle to solve the problems and bring the Congressional workplace into the 21st Century.
One of my biggest partners in the effort was Congresswoman Jackie Speier. We had a conservative, Republican congressman from Alabama working to solve the problem with a liberal, Democrat congresswoman from California. It was a truly bipartisan effort.
The bill makes numerous reforms to the process of handing harassment and other employment law claims, and you may be surprised at just how commonsense many of the changes are.
Most important, the bill ensures that Members of Congress, not taxpayers, are responsible for paying out sexual harassment settlements. No longer will a congressman be able to use taxpayer money to settle a harassment claim.
Eqaully important, the bill increases transparency by requiring that basic information about any sexual harassment or other claims be made public so the American people are fully aware of what is happening in Congress. The American people should know about such claims and settlements related to their elected officials.
The current process for settling a claim is overly complicated and tends to unfairly favor the accused. Our bill creates a fairer and simpler process for employees to file an employment law claim and for the claim to be resolved. The bill creates an office of employee advocacy to ensure staff has access to legal counsel, just as congressmen are provided. The process is also simplified to make the claims process smoother, faster, and fairer.
The bill also paves the way for every Congressional office to have a clearly defined anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policy, and all Members of Congress and staff will be required to take part in anti-harassment training. These reforms alone will result in greater awareness.
Finally, our plan prohibits Members of Congress from engaging in a sexual relationship with any staff member under their supervision and makes clear that sexual harassment is a violation of the Code of Official Conduct and will not be tolerated.
At the end of the day, our effort is all about ensuring Members of Congress are held accountable and do not get any special benefits or exceptions. I am proud to have helped craft this landmark, bipartisan legislation, and I will continue working to ensure transparency in our government.
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Bradley Byrne is a member of U.S. Congress representing Alabama’s 1st Congressional District.