The U.S. Congress, confronting allegations of sexual misconduct by several lawmakers, has approved legislation requiring all 535 members and their staffs to undergo mandatory anti-sexual harassment training.
The Senate approved the training earlier this month and the House of Representatives unanimously approved the new measures Wednesday amid a wave of accusations in recent weeks against prominent executives in the U.S. film industry, corporate chieftains, political figures and well-known journalists. Numerous men have been fired or forced to resign their high-profile positions, while others have apologized or denied the accusations.
"Sexual harassment has no place in any workplace, let alone in the United States Congress," House Speaker Paul Ryan said ahead of the House vote.
"The fact that some people [who] end up walking these halls are subjected to a threatening or hostile work environment when they came here to serve their country, to serve their ideals — that’s wrong, that’s a disgrace," Ryan said. "We cannot and we will not tolerate that kind of behavior.”
A bi-partisan group of lawmakers introduced legislation Wednesday that if passed would end a two-decade old practice of paying settlements with taxpayer funds. The Congressional Accountability and Hush Fund Elimination Act would require transparent disclosure of the nature of claims settled in the office of Congressional Compliance.
Lawmakers said that there had been 268 settlements totaling more than 17 million dollars since 1995, although it is unknown how many of them claims are related to sexual harassment complaints.
The effort is in response to widespread public outrage following the revelation of the payment system.
"For too long sexual predators have roamed freely through the halls of Congress - the people's House - while survivors of sexual assault have essentially been isolated, bullied and shamed into silence," said bill co-sponsor Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat from Hawaii.
Rep. Kathleen Rice, a Democrat from New York, told reporters the practice sent the wrong message to voters.
"What it confirms for the American people is that there's one set of rules for them - and one set of rules for elected officials here in the bubble that is Washington, D.C.," Rice said.
Some members of the Congressional Black Caucus, according to news accounts, are pressuring the longest-serving House member, Representative John Conyers of Michigan, to resign after former members of his staff accused him of sexual misconduct.
The 88-year-old Democrat last week acknowledged reaching a $27,000 settlement with one woman, but continued to deny her allegation of an unwanted advance. Conyers said he settled the case to avoid protracted litigation over the claim, but the House Ethics Committee is investigating whether he used taxpayer money from his congressional office accounts to pay the settlement. Since then, two other former staffers have accused Conyers of inappropriate sexual conduct.
Facing condemnation of his behavior, Conyers relinquished his position as the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.
Two other lawmakers have apologized for their actions.
Democratic Senator Al Franken of Minnesota offered an apology for groping broadcaster/model, Leeann Tweeden, who had performed with him on a 2006 tour to entertain U.S. troops in the Middle East before he was elected to the Senate. Subsequently, other women accused him of unwanted advances when they posed for pictures with him.
Republican Representative Joe Barton of Texas last week apologized after a nude photo of him surfaced on social media.
Republican Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state said, "Like many Americans, I’m troubled by the reports of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior in the workplace. It’s rocking Capitol Hill as well as elsewhere across the country. This is not who we are. We can and we must do better."
'Larger issue of civility'
She called for Americans "to take a step back to the larger issue of civility and how we treat each other in this country. Each one of us must be doing our part to lead by example and rebuild the moral fabric in our country.”
Democratic Representative Joseph Crowley of New York said that requiring the training was a good start for reforms.
"I believe that Congress should be not the gold standard, but the platinum standard," Crowley said. "We should be a beacon on a hill to say that sexual harassment or harassment of any kind is not acceptable in the workplace anywhere."
In addition to moving toward mandatory anti-sexual harassment training, Congress is considering an overhaul of its antiquated process to handle such complaints.
Currently, accusers are required to sign nondisclosure agreements if they file a complaint, and any financial settlement reached is kept secret and paid for by U.S. taxpayers.
Some lawmakers are supporting legislation that would end such requirements, forcing lawmakers who settle claims to reimburse the government.
VOA's Katherine Gypson contributed to this report.