In 1995, the first House of Representatives in forty years controlled by the Republican Party passed the Congressional Accountability Act. The intention of the Act was good — to make Congress accountable to the same labor laws to which most Americans are accountable, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and others. Prior to 1995, Congress simply was not obliged to follow these ground-breaking labor laws. Now, they are. That’s a good thing.
As part of the CAA, Congress also created the Office of Compliance to address complaints against members of Congress, including complaints of sexual harassment. Prior to 1995, if a staff person were the target of sexual harassment by a member of Congress, she or he had no recourse whatsoever to address the matter. So, the intention behind the creation of the Office of Compliance was a good thing, in that it gave victims of Congressperson’s bad behavior an avenue to file a formal complaint and, maybe, get some justice and recompense.
But, as with many things the government does, there were problems in the system.
If a staff person were the target of sexual harassment, she was required to undergo up to 30 days of counseling. After completion of the counseling, mediation could begin if the victim so desired. If mediation failed to resolve the matter, the victim could seek an administrative hearing, or file a federal lawsuit.
Here’s the problem: if the matter is resolved, either by administrative hearing or federal lawsuit, in favor of the victim, then the money paid to her in compensation doesn’t come out of the Congressperson’s personal funds. Nope. It comes out of an account managed by the Office of Compliance, and paid for the American taxpayer.
What this amounts to is a “shush” fund set up by Congress with taxpayer money for the purpose of protecting sitting members of Congress from charges of sexual harassment. Granted, as The Hill article points out, members of Congress could be targets of a campaign to discredit them in favor of their political opponents. There is a genuine concern to protect them from these sorts of unsavory political tactics. But, those concerns can be protected by other means, such as an open and impartial investigation, so it that hardly justifies a secret shush fund paid for by taxpayers to keep victims of sexual harassment from going public with their complaints.
According to the Washington Post, there were 235 complaints between 1997 and 2014 settled by the Office of Compliance, with $15.2 million in payments to victims. None of this was made public, not the names of the accused Congresspersons, not the names of the victims, not the nature of the complaints, or the amount of payments. It was all kept under cover, though it was all paid for by the American taxpayer.
Clearly, the American people, who are paying for this, have a right to know who the accused Congresspersons were, what the nature of the complaints against them were, the likelihood that the complaints were credible, and the amounts paid out to the victims. As well, victims of sexual harassment by members of Congress ought to have access to remediation through the courts from the beginning, and not after jumping through hoops of counseling and mediation by Congress, which has a clear conflict of interest in how these matters are handled.
The intent of Congress in setting up the Office of Compliance may have been sincere and good, in that it gives victims of sexual harassment some recourse to justice. But, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and the way Congress chose to handle these cases is reprehensible. This needs to be fixed, and fixed now.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.