Bill Changes How Congressional Sexual Harassment Claims Are Handled
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
As the #MeToo movement continues to bring forth new revelations, Congress is grappling with its own history with sexual harassment. Remember, two members, Al Franken and John Conyers, resigned over allegations of sexual misconduct, and at least two more members have been accused publicly. On top of that, in November, a group of 1,500 former Hill staffers sent a letter to congressional leaders saying that not enough is happening to prevent harassment or to address complaints of sexual misconduct. Today Congressman Bradley Byrne is one of the members introducing a bipartisan bill aimed at tackling these problems. He's a Republican from Alabama, and he joins me now.
Congressman, thanks so much for being with us.
BRADLEY BYRNE: It's great to be with you this morning.
MARTIN: You're a former employment attorney, I understand. So with that vantage point, what are the biggest flaws with how the House in particular addresses misconduct right now?
BYRNE: Well, the process that somebody has to go through to file a claim is really kind of stacked against the claimant. It's way too complex, requires the claimant to go through counseling and all this sort of thing. And it's very different from what I'm used to in the private sector under what we know as Title VII, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which is the Equal Employment Opportunity Act. Thirty years ago, the Supreme Court said that the type of sex discrimination can be sexual harassment. So we've been dealing with this - we in the private sector have been dealing with this for 30 years.
BYRNE: And it looks like Congress tried to deal with it 20 years ago, but I don't think that they did a very good job. And so with what we know has happened in the private sector, what we're now learning has been happening in Congress, it was time for us to take a review of that statue that applies to Congress and, I think, make the process a lot better for everybody but particularly the claimant.
MARTIN: Can you give us a couple specific items that would change under your bill?
BYRNE: Right. We're going to establish an office that's going to be an advocate for the victims. They can go there and get counseling if that's what they want or they can get free legal advice and legal representation in a proceeding that will give them a true investigation. And at the end of that investigation, there would be a finding that there is good cause to go forward or there's not. If there is, they would go forward to an administrative law judge process.
Now, they can circumvent that at the very beginning and go straight to federal court if that's what they want. But we're actually going to give them an attorney. And that balances out the imbalance we have right now because the members' offices have public paid-for attorneys, but the people with the claims do not. So this evens out that playing field.
And we've gone further than that. We are going to hold every member of Congress who has found to have discriminated against somebody in one of these sexual harassment lawsuits, we're going to hold them personally liable. We'll be able to go and get it out of their paycheck or, if they've retired, get it out their retirement. So that puts maximum accountability on every member of Congress for their own personal conduct.
MARTIN: I understand you're also proposing changes like mandatory harassment training - which is remarkable that that doesn't already exist - and a ban on sexual relationships between superiors and staff again. These have been standard practice in the private sector for decades. I mean, are you likely to get this stuff through? I mean, have you...
MARTIN: Are you getting any pushback?
BYRNE: No, no. No, no, no - we're not getting any pushback. We're getting lots of questions, which is appropriate, because members need to understand what this statute is going to say and how it's going to apply to them. But it's my anticipation we're going to file this bill today. It will be voted on by the end of the month. I do not even anticipate that it's going to be a roll call vote. I think it will be a voice vote. I think it's going to be that popular among members. I do not anticipate any sort of pushback.
MARTIN: People who work in Congress - many say sexual misconduct is such a big problem. And they point to the fact that there are two congressmen still in office, despite misconduct allegations against them. We're talking about Democrat Ruben Kihuen and Republican Blake Farenthold. Does your bill address concerns about the process by which lawmakers are held to account?
BYRNE: Yes, there's going to be complete transparency. And you're not going to be able to use your members account, the account that runs your office, to pay off a claim. And this is not going to be something you can sweep under the rug. So this is going to cause a culture change, and that's what we really want. At the end of the day, we want the culture to change. And I'm confident with this new bill that that's going to happen.
MARTIN: Congressman Bradley Byrne, Republican who represents Alabama's Gulf Coast.
Thanks for your time.
BYRNE: Good to be with you.
[POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: In this story, we say that two members of Congress, Sen. Al Franken and Rep. John Conyers, have resigned over allegations of sexual misconduct. In fact, Rep. Trent Franks also resigned, for a total of three.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.