When sexual harassers agree on confidential settlements with victims, at least the payments come out of the harassers' own pockets or from companies that choose to employ them.
But not, as the nation has learned this month, when the harasser serves in Congress. Then, taxpayers foot the bill. And the entire episode remains hidden.
This outrageous system grows out of a 1995 law, known as the Congressional Accountability Act, that was intended to make lawmakers subject to the same workplace laws against harassment and discrimination as the rest of American employers.
The law was a well-intentioned and much needed effort to end Congress' status as the "last plantation." But some of the fine-print provisions — such as mandating that settlements be secret and having taxpayers pick up the tab for lawmakers violating the law — represent the opposite of accountability.
OTHER VIEWS: Coverup culture in Congress
For complainants, the act set up an arrangement so cumbersome that it seems designed less to protect wronged workers than to insulate lawmakers from public embarrassment.
To file a complaint, employees must go through a 90-day “mandatory dispute resolution process,” the first step of which is counseling — for the accuser. Yes, you read that correctly. The alleged harasser isn’t forced to get counseling. The victim is.
Outside Congress, workers with claims can file a lawsuit in federal court whenever they want. But if they work for Congress, “failure to follow these procedures … may jeopardize any claims raised under” the law.
Because of public furor over sexual harassment and the decision by some female lawmakers to reveal their own experiences, the 1995 law is under a much deserved spotlight. In recent weeks, current and former congresswomen have revealed enduring everything from unwanted advances to being groped on the House floor. One told of a staffer who quit after a lawmaker told her to bring materials to his house, answered the door in a towel, and exposed himself.
Add to that accusations against two of Congress' most liberal members, and you have the makings of a watershed moment. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., apologized Monday for disrespecting women. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., stepped aside Sunday as the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee after being accused of making unwanted advances toward female staffers and firing one after she resisted. (Conyers allegedly settled that claim with $27,000 of taxpayers’ money from his office account, disguising it as “severance pay.” He acknowledged settling but denied the allegations.)
Even so, all the public knows is that since 1997, Congress has paid more than $17 million to settle scores of workplace claims from a special Treasury Department fund created by the 1995 law.
Whether the claims involved sexual harassment, or discrimination against protected groups, is unknown. So is the identity of lawmakers and aides involved in alleged misbehavior.
Such secrecy is a betrayal of the public trust and the whole notion that government works in public. Nor should Capitol Hill be a place that tolerates crude and ugly mistreatment of women.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers, led by Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is pushing a measure to make the complaint process less cumbersome for workers, get rid of required secrecy, and mandate that any lawmaker who settles a claim as a harasser repay the U.S. Treasury out of his or her own pocket.
Nothing in the Speier-Gillibrand proposal should be particularly controversial, but passage is far from assured. Congress has never been particularly good at policing itself.
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