A U.S. law surprisingly allows harassers serving in Congress to use tax payer money to make settlements with victims.
This “outrageous” system is an offshoot of a 1995 law called Congressional Accountability Act that was intended to ensure that legislators are subject to the same workplace laws regarding harassment or discrimination as other employers.
Although well-intentioned, some of the lesser-known provisions included in it , such as a mandate to make settlements secret or requiring taxpayers to foot any settlements for violations by lawmakers, has led to a lack of accountability.
Complaint Filing A Cumbersome Process
For those who want to complain, the act has made the process so cumbersome that it seems to be aimed more at protecting lawmakers from public embarrassment than at helping the victims.
- A employee seeking to file a complaint needs to go through a “mandatory dispute resolution process,” lasting 90 days .
- The first step within it is counselling for the accuser and not in fact for the harasser.
- If an employee fails to follow these procedures, the act states that it “may jeopardize any claims raised” under the law.
Recent Exposures Puts A Spotlight On the Law
The current furore over the sexual harassment allegations along with revelations made by some women lawmakers has brought the 1995 law into focus.
Recently, several serving as well as former congresswomen have revealed instances of harassment ranging from unwanted advances to being groped.
Accusations have also come against two of the most liberal members – Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., and Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich, bringing the issue widespread media attention. Franken has apologised for disrespecting women while Conyers has stepped aside from the House Judiciary Committee after accusations came of unwanted advances made toward female staffers and firing one because she resisted.
According to rumours, Conyers settled with a $27,000 payout made from taxpayers’ money disguising it as “severance pay.” He has acknowledged the settlement, but denies the allegations.
Treasury Department Fund Created For Paying Settlements
So far since 1997, Congress has paid out over $17 million as settlements from a special Treasury Department fund set up under the 1995 law to close workplace claims.
No information is available if the claims made involved sexual harassment, or if it involved discrimination against protected groups . The identity of the legislators implicated in alleged misbehaviour as well as the aides involved is also not known.
New Proposal To Address Concerns
A new measure is being proposed by a bipartisan group of lawmakers headed by Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., that seeks to reduce the complexity of the complaint process, eliminate the secrecy surrounding it and add a mandate that any lawmakers settling a claim repay the US government with his or her funds
Although there are no controversial provisions within the Speier-Gillibrand proposal, its passage is not assured as the Congress is not known for policing itself.