Congress needs to be open about harassment suits
This season of disclosures of sexual harassment has unsettled major U.S. institutions and industries including entertainment, the news media and government, especially Congress.
Yet, incredibly, the American public has no way to know when a member of Congress uses the American public’s money to settle one or more harassment claims, or how much such settlements cost.
ABC News recently reported that at least $17 million has been paid in settlements since 1997 from funds known as members’ representational allowances. But those payouts include all settlements for workplace disputes and the Office of Compliance, which administers the payouts, does not break down the nature of the complaints and does not identify the parties.
And those funds aren’t the only sources of public money used as hush money. Money to settle a complaint against U.S. Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, for example, was drawn from his office’s operating funds.
To begin with, there is no convincing rationale for making taxpayers responsible for the personal indiscretions of members of Congress. That’s why Congress should pass a bill, sponsored by California Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier, that would make representatives personally liable for harassment settlements.
Meanwhile, Congress should instruct the Office of Compliance to produce and publicly release a breakdown of all sexual harassment settlements by members of Congress.
The issue is not simply to account for public money, which is fundamental, but to create deterrence, advise constituents of their representatives’ conduct and warn employees of their bosses’ records.