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House Democrats form task force to address sexual harassment

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A small group of House Democrats have formed an informal task force on sexual harassment as at least three lawmakers facing sexual harassment allegations have stepped aside in the past month and as others continue to face accusations and ethics investigations.

The group, which has met quietly at least four times in the past few weeks, is addressing a range of questions, including whether the Democratic caucus needs to adjust its own culture and practices, and plans to come up with a recommendation at some point.

“(We) are looking for ways which we can possibly even amend our own rules of our caucus in terms of conduct and standards of conduct for members of the Democratic caucus,” Rep. Joe Crowley, the chairman of the Democratic caucus who also sits on the task force, told reporters Wednesday.

The working group was created by House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and includes members from the House Administration Committee, as well as former members on the Ethics Committee. Members who have worked on relevant legislation — such as Reps. Jackie Speier, Brenda Lawrence and Lois Frankel — are also on the committee.

Focusing on transparency and compensation, the group of about a dozen members is seeking guidance from outside lawyers and experts, as well as representatives of victims and advocacy groups. While the task force is currently categorized as an informal group, members have said they hope it leads to potential legislation down the road.

Sexual harassment has been a dominant topic on Capitol Hill this fall as allegations came to light against Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota, who announced last week he plans to resign, and Rep. John Conyers, who announced his immediate retirement also last week.

The Democratic task force is just one of many efforts by both sides of the aisle to tackle an issue that’s unveiled great angst and frustration across Congress.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers already introduced legislation that aims to overhaul the way sexual harassment is treated on Capitol Hill. House Speaker Paul Ryan last month pushed for offices to step up their sexual harassment training, and the House later passed a resolution mandating such training. The Republican-led House Administration Committee has also held two major hearings on the issue in the past month.

Democratic leaders have also called for the resignation of freshman Democrat Rep. Ruben Kihuen, who’s facing claims of sexual harassment by a former campaign employee. Kihuen has repeatedly said he will not resign.

On the other side of the aisle, Republican Rep. Trent Franks resigned last week amid allegations of inappropriate behavior, and Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, is also facing allegations and has previously used taxpayer money to settle a sexual harassment claim.

Rep. Linda Sanchez, the vice chair of the Democratic caucus, said Wednesday that the task force is hoping to work with Republicans at some point on the issue. A big component, she said, is to reform the complaint process for victims.

“Right now, the deck has been stacked against them with regard to the process with reporting these kinds of claims,” she said. “We need to change the culture in the Capitol so that folks understand that there is zero tolerance and it’s not acceptable.”

The Office of Compliance, which oversees workplace disputes in Congress, has come under intense scrutiny after it announced last month it has paid more than $17 million since its creation in the 1990s. That includes all settlements, not just related to sexual harassment, but also discrimination and other cases.

Problems have also been reported involving the complaint filing process, which has been described as lengthy and antiquated.

Ryan has touted an effort led by House Administration Chairman Gregg Harper to overhaul the process for reporting and processing claims against lawmakers and staffers.