We have all heard the old phrase that Congress would exempt itself from the law of gravity if it thought it could get away with it. And, indeed, Congress has tried to get away with it for a long time. But that is changing now. – Rep. Harris W. Fawell, R-IL.
Harris Fawell retired from Congress 18 years ago, four years after offering the above observation about the place. This week, his words finally may be coming true.
Amid mushrooming evidence of sexual misconduct by lawmakers and the disclosure that congressional employees have been paid at least $17 million since 1997 to resolve 264 harassment, discrimination and other job-related complaints, there appears to be growing bipartisan support for releasing the names of senators and congressmen who’ve settled sexual harassment complaints.
"It's taxpayer dollars at issue; taxpayers have a right to know how their money is being spent," Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-FL, told Politico last week.
DeSantis is the lead sponsor of a bill introduced last Wednesday that would require public release of sexual harassment settlements involving lawmakers and ban the use of public funds to pay them. He doesn't understand "why the taxpayer should ever be on the hook for private misconduct of a member,” DeSantis said.
DeSantis said he’s getting messages from members on both sides of the partisan aisle who are eager to sign on as co-sponsors. His bill would require that any settlements of harassment complaints be made public, along with details of the complaints. The names of the victims would remain confidential unless they chose to self-disclose.
Workplace harassment complaints directed at members of Congress are handled by an “Office of Compliance” created more than 20 years ago. Congressional employees have 180 days to report a sexual harassment incident to the office; their complaints trigger a process of counseling and mediation and the victim must sign a confidentiality agreement before a complaint can go forward.
BuzzFeed News reports that more than 400 House and Senate employees have contacted the office to complain of violations of their rights at work. While the office acknowledged last week that it has paid out $17 million in settlements, the details of claims lodged against members remain secret.
DeSantis’ bill apparently would not reach settlements reached outside Congress’ formal complaint process. Rep. John Conyers, D-MI, the senior member of the House, acknowledged last week that he tapped his office account to pay $27,000 to resolve the complaint of a staffer who said she was fired because she rebuffed his advances. Conyers “vehemently denied” her claim and other published reports of harassment.
Conyers announced last week that he will step aside as ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee while the House Ethics Committee investigates allegations against him. He insisted he has no plans to resign his seat however.