House prohibits sexual relationships between lawmakers and their staffers

The new rule is a response to the wave of sexual harassment and misconduct scandals that have dominated news on Capitol Hill since October.

The American flag flies next to the dome of the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 15, 2017. (Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg)

Washington • The House voted Tuesday to prohibit sexual relationships between lawmakers and their employees, a remarkable rules change that brings the institution in line with the military and the private sector after a rash of sexual harassment and misconduct allegations roiled Capitol Hill.

The prohibition, pushed by Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va., took immediate effect as Congress moves toward changing the system for reporting and adjudicating employees' claims of sexual harassment. The House approved language Tuesday establishing an office to advocate for employees during that process, and a separate bill requiring lawmakers to reimburse taxpayers when they are involved in workplace settlements.

The bipartisan bills are Congress's most definitive response so far in response to the "me too" campaign and the wave of harassment and misconduct scandals that have forced at least eight members to resign or announce plans to retire in the past four months. Amid a national reckoning over sexual misbehavior in the workplace, news reports exposing lawmakers' secretive process for settling harassment complaints with taxpayer dollars pushed House leaders to confront criticisms of the system.

The bills cancel the requirement that accusers undergo counseling and mediation and loosen confidentiality rules governing the complaint process.

The House approved both measures by voice vote under suspension of the rules, a method for fast-tracking noncontroversial bills that requires two-thirds of lawmakers' support for passage. It was not immediately clear when the Senate might take action on the bill to reform the harassment reporting process.

That measure, H.R. 4924, reforms the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 to require members to reimburse the Treasury Department when they are involved in settlements; automatically refers cases that have settled to the House Ethics Committee; extends workplace protections to unpaid staff, including interns; gives staffers the ability to file a lawsuit at the same time as they file a complaint; and tweaks how records are kept and claims are tracked, including transmitting reports to the ethics committee.

A separate resolution, H. Res. 724, requires each member of the House to adopt policies prohibiting harassment and discrimination; establishes the nonpartisan Office of Employee Advocacy to provide assistance to staffers with complaints; mandates that each member's office certify they are not using their budgets for workplace settlements; and prohibits sexual relationships between members and "any employee of the House that works under [their] supervision."

Previously, House rules did not explicitly prohibit such relationships. The new rules bar lawmakers from engaging in "unwelcome sexual advances or conduct" toward colleagues and House employees, but do not ban sexual relationships between lawmakers and staffers they do not supervise.

Since October, four members of Congress have resigned over allegations of sexual harassment or misconduct.

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., was accused by eight women of inappropriate touching or forcible kissing, with most of the alleged incidents described as taking place before he was elected to the Senate. While he did not directly deny the allegations in most cases, he said he remembered some encounters differently. Franken also offered apologies to some of his accusers. He officially resigned his seat Jan. 2.

Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., a former member of the House Pro-Life Caucus, resigned Oct. 5 after a news report claimed that he asked a woman with whom he had an extramarital affair to get an abortion. Other reports also described a pattern of harassment in his congressional office by his longtime chief of staff, Susan Mosychuk. Announcing his resignation, he acknowledged "personal difficulties" and said he was going to "seek help."

Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., formerly Congress's longest-serving member, left his seat Dec. 5 after six former employees accused him of unwanted sexual advances and other mistreatment. He repeatedly denied the allegations.

Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., resigned Dec. 8 after news broke that he offered a female staff member $5 million if she would bear his child. He acknowledged taking part in a "discussion of surrogacy with two previous female subordinates" but denied attempting to have sexual contact with them.

Another four lawmakers have announced that they will not run for reelection following similar scandals.

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, said Nov. 30 that he would not seek another term after a lewd photo he sent to a woman with whom he was having an extramarital affair circulated online. He was recorded on tape telling the woman he would report her to Capitol Police because she could expose his other affairs. Barton called the recording possible evidence of a crime, accusing the woman of threatening him, while acknowledging that constituents had "lost faith" in him.

Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, said he would leave Congress amid allegations that he sexually harassed female staff members, including his former communications director, with whom he reached a settlement in 2014. Farenthold, who announced his plans Dec. 14, stated his belief that he broke no laws and denied the woman's allegations, but admitted that he fostered a workplace culture that was "too permissive and decidedly unprofessional."

Rep. Ruben Kihuen, D-Nev., said Dec. 16 that he would not run for reelection after multiple women accused him of unwanted advances, and in at least one case, inappropriate touching. The women included an employee on his 2016 congressional campaign and a lobbyist he knew during his time as a Nevada state legislator. Kihuen denied the allegations.

Rep. Patrick Meehan, R-Pa., said he would not seek another term Jan. 25 after news broke that he settled with a former female staffer who accused him of unwanted advances. Seeking to defend himself, he said he considered the decades-younger woman his "soul mate" but never sought a romantic or sexual relationship with her.