We are learning that sexual harassment knows no boundaries. It takes on all forms and the perpetrators span ideologies, professions, ages, everything. Those waves are now lapping at the feet of members of Congress. So far there has been only a trickle of information about sexual abuse there with senator Al Franken and congressman John Conyers being named but it is only a matter of time before more names come out, given that the nature and culture of that institution is ripe for abuse. One member of congress Jackie Speier has spoken from her own experience as a young intern about what goes on and said that there are at least two others, whom she did not name, who are culpable.
Speier has said she knows of two current members of Congress, one a Democrat and the other a Republican, who have been accused of sexual harassment. Neither of those is Franken or Rep. John Conyers, who was also the subject of public allegations this week, Speier said. And she’s not naming names.
There seems to be little that can surprise us anymore but I did find it amazing that for years members of Congress have settled sex harassment and other cases using taxpayer funds and have managed to keep it secret using various loopholes in the accounting process.
In recent weeks, several publications including POLITICO have reported that current House rules enable the Office of Compliance, which handles employment disputes, to tap Treasury resources to pay settlements for disputes brought to them.
Since 1997, the compliance office has paid out $17 million in workplace dispute settlements, a total that covers discrimination, workplace safety, and pay claims, as well as harassment cases.
[Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.)] said that using office budgets to pay for settlements may be one loophole that allows lawmakers to hide harassment claims even now. He wasn’t sure if it is possible to force members to “self-disclose” whether they used their member office budgets to settle with accusers — though he encouraged reporters to try to identify any lawmakers who have done so.
DeSantis’ bill would require all compliance office settlements to be made public as well as the details of the allegations. Victims’ names would be kept secret, but DeSantis believes they should have a right to come forward to tell their stories.
Businesses often pay to settle claims made against their employees, Bill O’Reilly and Fox News being a good example, and they often do so in secret and get the recipients to sign a non-disclosure agreement in order to avoid negative publicity. That is bad enough. But for members of Congress to be able to do this with public money is unconscionable. Unsurprisingly, this is an issue where there seems to be a bipartisan desire to keep things secret, with even leaders pleading ignorance and finding excuses for the practice.
Aides to Ryan and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have noted that the leaders don’t currently have the names of the members who’ve settled such complaints, even if they wanted to release them.
But congressional leaders could likely get them if they asked. That’s because the chairman and ranking member of the House Administration Committee, who have to approve any settlement payments issued by the Office of Compliance, would be expected to comply with any shift in policy agreed to by Ryan and Pelosi.
Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) office and the House Administration Committee have not ruled out potential changes to the settlement reporting process as part of an ongoing review of the chamber’s harassment policy. But there’s strong, albeit quiet, resistance on Capitol Hill to disclosing the names of members who’ve reached settlements in the past.
Some lawmakers and aides worry that several sitting members of Congress are among those who’ve paid their accusers in recent years. Some of them say that settling a claim doesn’t necessarily mean the member was guilty. There are times when it is preferable to settle than to engage in a prolonged legal battle, these people surmise.
It seems like it will actually take legislation to get the cases revealed.
Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) proposed legislation Wednesday that would mandate public disclosure of sexual harassment settlements — and ban Congress from footing the bill for such deals in the future. Within a few hours of introducing his bill, DeSantis had been contacted by several Republican and Democratic lawmakers asking to sign on.
“It’s taxpayer dollars at issue; taxpayers have a right to know how their money is being spent,” DeSantis said in an interview, adding that he doesn’t understand “why the taxpayer should ever be on the hook for private misconduct of a member. … That should not be something the taxpayers are funding.”
Whether Congress feels forced to release this information will be a real test of the power of public opinion.