What’s the story?
On Wednesday, a group of bipartisan lawmakers introduced a bill that would out lawmakers who settled sexual harassment claims with taxpayer dollars.
Currently, sexual harassment claims against senators or representatives are handled by a process that is unique to other parts of the federal government – and most of the private sector. Accusers can only file lawsuits if they first agree to go through months of counseling and mediation. When settlements do occur, members don’t pay them from their own funds, as required by other federal agencies. Rather, the payments – which remain confidential – come from a special U.S. Treasury fund.
This new bill, cosponsored by Reps. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), Ron DeSantis (R-FL), and Kathleen Rice (D-NY) would change all that.
The move comes after several members of Congress have been accused of sexual harassment. This includes a report by New York magazine that alleges Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) settled a harassment complaint with taxpayer funds. And earlier in the day, Rep. Rice walked out of the House Democrats’ morning meeting, complaining that the harassment claims against Conyers and Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) weren’t being taken seriously.
"I don’t have time for meetings that aren’t real," Rice told reporters. She’s also called on House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) to release Conyers’ accuser from her confidentiality agreement.
Why does it matter?
On Monday, Rep. DeSantis posted a statement explaining why he was working on the bill:
"Since 1995, more than $15 million in taxpayer dollars has been paid out to settle claims, including sexual harassment claims, on behalf of members of Congress and congressional staff. While the amount of money paid is public, everything else is secret. The public doesn’t know which members have been involved in taxpayer-financed settlements for alleged misconduct."
The new bill would:
Require the congressional Office of Compliance to publicly disclose on its website all previously made payments.
Prohibit nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) as a precondition to address sexual harassment or assault claims.
Permit victims to speak publicly about their claim, regardless of any previously signed NDAs.
Bar the use of tax dollars to pay harassment claims against members and staff.
Require that lawmakers who used the confidential Treasury Department fund reimburse the government, with interest.
The bill would not publicize the names of the victims of the sexual harassment.
Tennessee Reps. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican, and Jim Cooper, a Democrat, joined the three other House members in announcing the bill on Wednesday.
"No more cover-ups," said Cooper. “We need transparency, safety and appropriate behavior. Sexual misconduct has no place here, or anywhere.”
What do you think?
Do you support the new bill? Do you want your reps to support it? Anything else you’d like to see included? Hit Take Action, tell your reps, then share your thoughts below.
— Josh Herman
(Photo Credit: Juanmonino / iStockphoto)
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