The sudden collective revulsion against sexual harassment and the apparent long-standing practice of ignoring or minimizing its consequences ought to be applauded and extended to all segments of society, including the halls of power in Washington. So should the undoing of some troubling institutional protections for bad behavior.
Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah, deserves recognition for attacking one of these in a bill that passed the House last week. Her bill, HR4674, would require lawmakers to repay any settlements of sexual harassment claims that were paid with taxpayer funds, and to do so within 90 days. Lawmakers involved would face the possibility of having their wages garnished if they failed to comply.
Incredibly, an account exists to pay settlements of such claims, and these payments have been allowed to take place under a cloak of secrecy. Love’s bill is part of a package that also would require, twice a year, the publishing of the names of lawmakers involved with such claims.
The threat of that kind of publicity alone ought to be an incentive for politicians to think twice before doing something that might hurt others.
Under the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995, federal employees are allowed to sue a lawmaker for harassment, but only if they agree to keep the lawmaker’s name secret. Rules require the employees to submit to counseling and mediation, something this package of bills also would end.
Those rules presume accusers are fabricating allegations. They give politicians a protection from embarrassment that is not afforded any other person accused of such a crime.
More importantly, they encourage settlements even in cases where lawmakers may be innocent, increasing the risk to taxpayers.
As Love said about her bill in a speech to the House, “It sends a message that there isn’t a set fund out there, paid for by the taxpayer, ready for someone to access, but it also doesn’t encourage a member who feels that they’ve done nothing wrong to settle so an issue can just go away.”
In recent months, the sheer number of such cases, both in the private and public sectors, has been staggering. High-profile media personalities and business leaders, most recently Steve Wynn of Wynn Resorts, have resigned amid sexual harassment allegations.
Eight members of Congress either have resigned or announced they are not seeking re-election because of such claims since October.
Stories of sexual harassment in Washington are, of course, hardly new. Through the years, evidence of such behavior has surfaced. What has changed in recent months is a collective recognition that such crimes are serious violations, and that victims deserve protection and restitution regardless of how trusted or famous their attackers may be.7 comments on this story
We remain concerned that this positive cultural shift may not yet be reaching all levels of the economy, especially to workers on the low end of pay scales. Hopefully, efforts by Love and others in Congress will generate enough recognition and attention to empower workers at all levels.
Members of Congress are public servants, sent to Washington under the sacred trust of voters who elected them. That they have been allowed to hide allegations of harassment and rely on taxpayer money to secretly pay claims is repugnant.
The Senate should quickly follow the House and pass bills by Love and others that rectify this.