The secret congressional culture of sexual harassment continues to make headlines, and new reports show how a combination of bureaucracy, federal law, and your money subsidize the Hill’s legion of creeps while keeping the whole process away from the light of day.
A report at Buzzfeed published late Monday night tells the story of a former staffer for Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., who settled a 2015 sexual harassment claim against Conyers after, she says, she was fired for refusing his sexual advances. Conyers denies the settlements. [Update: Conyers has since retracted his earlier denial and issued a statement acknowledging the settlement.]
“I was basically blackballed. There was nowhere I could go,” the staffer, who requested that her identity be withheld, told the website. Congress has no human resources department and requires that all such complaints go through the Office of Compliance, which sends an untold number of them through a taxpayer-funded system that skews heavily in favor of congressional harassers.
As has already been noted elsewhere, the Office of Compliance’s total payout numbers over the years are all lumped together, meaning that we can’t tell which payments may have been made for sexual harassment settlements any more than we can tell how much was spent on workman’s compensation claims.
But we now know of at least one such payout, and there are likely others among the numbers. These payouts — and their secrecy — are an affront to anyone who dislikes misuses of taxpayer dollars and legislatively mandated cover-ups.
NBC’s Capitol Hill correspondent has a simple and efficient breakdown of the process here:
So, what happens when you file a sexual harassment claim on Capitol Hill? Let’s walk through it … pic.twitter.com/fltUcd2cdl
— Kasie DC (@KasieDC) November 20, 2017
In just 100 seconds, Hunt explains a process mired in secrecy, where accusers are faced with the choice of either taxpayer-funded hush money or a month-long “cooling off” period before they can take their accused perpetrators to court. This is a process where a victim of sexual harassment may or may not have an attorney present — but his or her harasser most definitely will.
With a process this ridiculously lopsided and convoluted, it’s no wonder that Conyers’ accuser says she felt blackballed. It’s also no wonder that the women of Capitol Hill have a running “creep list” to try to pre-emptively avoid these situations. And it’s no wonder that we’re only just hearing about this in the post-Weinstein era.
But on top of the opacity of the process, the whole mess is paid for with your money. From the lawyer whose job it is to defend both the politician and the institution to the settlement payment, it’s all paid for with public funds.
In effect, current law has created a system where sexual predators on Capitol Hill are enabled by both secrecy and insulation from financial penalties to go about being creeps without any damage to their reputations, their political careers, or their wallets.
It remains unclear whether the agreements made so far under the law could be unsealed by any act of Congress or another legal mechanism, as they are legally binding agreements, but the process could be amended going forward.
One such bill, introduced in the House by Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and in the Senate by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., promises to do just that. The ME TOO CONGRESS Act would both remove the provision in the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act that mandates that victims sign a non-disclosure agreement for going forward while also ensuring that members of Congress who settle sexual harassment claims have to refund the American people for money paid out under any such agreement.
It remains to be seen whether congressional leadership will take up the measure or something similar to it. In a statement released Tuesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan said that the Committee on House Administration is continuing a review of existing policy ordered last month and that additional reforms are “under consideration.”
Two things have become nauseatingly clear over the past couple of weeks: First, there is a sickening and secretive culture of predatory perversion on Capitol Hill. Second, congressional representatives have enabled this through the rules they have created for themselves.
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