Steve's Blog

Why Should You Pay for Someone Else’s Bad Behavior?

Under current law, if a Member of Congress sexually harasses an employee, you, the taxpayer, foots the bill. And you’ll never know about it, because it’s all kept secret, and even the victim isn’t allowed to talk about it. This is patently absurd, and must be changed.

How does this happen? Ironically, it was originally a well-intentioned attempt to improve on an even worse system. What?! Well, prior to 1995, when Republicans took control of the House for the first time in 40 years, it was virtually impossible for employees, or anyone else, to recover for a Member of Congress’s misbehavior against her or him. Under Democrat-control of Congress prior to 1995, Congress had exempted itself from being held accountable under virtually every law, including: the Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, etc. Passage of the Congressional Accountability Act in 1995 was an attempt to apply the same laws to Congress as apply to everyone else.

Problem solved, right? Not exactly. Unfortunately what we see now is that the attempted reform was flawed. An employee of Congress who alleges that they’ve been sexually harassed, must participate in a 90 day “mandatory dispute resolution process.” And during that process, the accuser, not the accused, must receive counseling. Think of that, the victim must receive counseling, but not the guy who did the harassing! That’s just nuts.

Just how big is this problem? Well from 1997 through 2017, according to the Office of Compliance, which was set up to handle such claims, there have been 268 settlements with complainants. The total payout of tax dollars has been $17 million. Here’s where it gets tricky. We don’t know how much of that money was paid out for sexual harassment cases, because the 268/$17 million also includes payments for misbehaving EMPLOYEES within Congressional offices, not just for Members of Congress, and also for claims against other agencies on Capitol Hill, such as the Capitol Hill Police, the Architect of the Capitol, etc.

Who approves settling the complaints? Well, Congress is divided into various committees, and one of those is the House Administration Committee, which has oversight of the day-to-day operations of the House of Representatives, and oversight over federal elections. The Chairman and Ranking Member of that committee must approve any settlement, so both a Republican and a Democrat have to give their seal of approval.

In my view, the public deserves better than this. There are at least two things which should be done to overhaul this flawed mechanism for handling allegations of sexual harassment against Members of Congress or against their staff. First, claims and payments should be public; the public has the right to know. And most importantly, the payment should come out of the pocket of the Member of Congress who has done the harassing, not from taxpayers.

Anyway, that’s the way I see it. And I hope enough of my colleagues in Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, will see it that way too. Let me know what you think.

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