Barely a week passes without a member of Congress being accused of having sexually harassed an aide, co-worker or person on the street. But unlike those at the center of a national reckoning over workplace harassment, congressional members have used taxpayers’ money and the institution’s secrecy rules to cover up their misconduct. These cases need to be open, and lawmakers should be personally liable for monetary damages.
House Administration Committee Chairman Gregg Harper of Mississippi said last week the House secretly paid $115,000 to settle three sex harassment claims between 2008 and 2012. While that brings to $199,000 the amount known to have been paid from a fund controlled by Congress’ secretive Office of Compliance since 2008 to settle four harassment claims, the actual cost for settling these types of cases is almost certainly more, given the confidentiality surrounding the process.
Roll Call reported this month that the Treasury Department paid $220,000 in a previously undisclosed agreement to settle a lawsuit alleging harassment that involved Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar. A former staffer of a congressional committee that promotes international human rights said Hastings touched her, made unwanted sexual advances and threatened her job, according to Roll Call. Hastings denied the accusations and said he was unaware of the settlement agreement until Roll Call reported it. The matter was "handled solely" by the Senate counsel’s office, Hastings said, and "at no time was I consulted, nor did I know until after the fact that such a settlement was made."
Therein lies the extent of the problem. Congress’ process for handling sexual harassment cases so prevents the truth from coming out that it violates due process for victims and the accused, and the rights of taxpayers to see how their money is spent. Under a 1995 law, harassment complaints against members are handled confidentially. Lawyers for the House and Senate also have insisted that settlements be kept secret. That self-policing makes it virtually impossible to hold members accountable, or even to account for how much public money is being used to pay off victims. The Office of Compliance said in November the government had paid more than $17 million in taxpayer money over the past 20 years to resolve workplace complaints. But the agency did not break down that amount by category, making it impossible to determine how much was paid in sex harassment cases. Some members of Congress have even paid secret settlements from their office accounts.
The culture in Congress needs to change, and it won’t change on its own. Several lawmakers have proposed legislation to open up the complaint process. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, filed a bill Wednesday that would automatically refer sexual harassment cases to the House Ethics Committee, which would help lift the veil of secrecy. But identifying members who are the subject of complaints is only a first step. Lawmakers also should be required to pay any settlements with private funds, not tax money. Congress, which writes the nation’s employment laws, should be setting the bar for healthy workplace environments. And it shouldn’t be secretly spending taxpayer money to cover up personal misconduct.