Washington – Congress’s Office of Compliance is under attack for its use of taxpayer money to pay for secret workplace settlements, including those in sexual harassment cases, involving lawmakers and their staff members.
Former Connecticut Rep. Chris Shays, who sponsored the House bill that established the Office of Compliance 20 years ago, said secret settlements weren’t the goal of his legislation. He wants the House rules changed to increase transparency and shift responsibility for payouts to the accused.
“It should be paid for by the perpetrator,” he said.
Shays, a Republican who lost his seat to Democratic Rep. Jim Himes eight years ago, in 1995 sponsored the Congressional Accountability Act, which applied several civil rights, labor, workplace safety and health laws to Congress. Before approval of the act, the first bill to comply with former Rep. Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America,” members of Congress and their staffers were exempted from many laws related to the workplace.
The Senate passed a similar bill.
“What we did was write a bill that was 95 percent perfect,” Shays said.
It’s the remaining 5 percent that is causing a ruckus now.
The bill set up the Office of Compliance to handle workplace complaints in Congress and pay out settlements with taxpayer money.
Those complaints and settlements were, for the most part, kept confidential.
Shays said lawmakers “from both sides of the aisle” demanded anonymity because they were concerned “someone could bring a charge against me a month before an election that could be untrue.”
The Office of Compliance was required to make annual reports that detail the number of people who initiated proceedings with the office — called “requests for counseling,” which is the very beginning of the claims process.
But it had not, until recently, released a report of that activity since 2014.
The office does not have to report how much money it pays out in settlements. Under pressure, however, the OOC revealed it has paid out nearly $1 million of taxpayer money in eight workplace settlements this year and nearly $17 million since it was established in 1997.
Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., settled a wrongful dismissal complaint in 2015 with a former employee who alleged she was fired because she would not “succumb to his sexual advances.”
The woman who settled with Conyers had started her complaint with the Office of Compliance in 2014.
But she said she faced a daunting process that ended with a confidentiality agreement in exchange for a settlement of more than $27,000 — paid out of Conyers’ office budget, not the OOC.
Other women say they were subject to aggressive sexual behavior from Conyers when they worked in his office.
On Thursday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called on Conyers to resign.
The congressman, 88, was hospitalized Wednesday night after suffering chest pains and dizziness. He denies the charges of sexual improprieties that have been levied against him.
Another lawmaker – Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas –announced on Thursday that he will not seek re-election. Barton has publicly apologized for what he described as consensual sexual relationships with multiple women while married to his former wife.
The congressman says the relationships were consensual and that he is not guilty of sexual harassment. An embarrassing photo of a naked Barton that he sent to one of the women he was involved with surfaced last week.
There are mounting calls for Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., to resign after several women say he groped or kissed them inappropriately.
Franken has repeatedly apologized for his behavior, but said he plans to remain in office.
No standard for harassment in Congress
Shays’ law also directs the OOC to publish the details of why complaints were filed. As of now, those details aren’t being shared.
Shays said detailed reports should be released quarterly and the OOC should do more to make members of Congress aware of the office’s purpose.
“As far as sexual harassment, (the OOC) is not working like it’s supposed to,” Shays said.
But he said “I’m proud of what we did,” to force Congress to comply with a number of federal laws that once exempted lawmakers and their staffs.
“It’s immoral for Congress to pass laws they don’t have to comply with,” Shays said.
When the Senate was debating its version of the bill, former Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman called it the “Golden Rule” since Congress would do to “ourselves as we have done unto others …”
Now there’s pressure to change that 22-year-old law and make changes to the Office of Compliance, which requires complainants to submit to mandatory counseling, sign a nondisclosure agreement and wait months before an investigation into their claims even begins.
The House Administration Committee plans to hold a hearing next week reviewing the OOC’s settlement payments and several lawmakers are seeking reforms of the way the office handles workplace complaints, especially those involving sexual harassment.
Among the lawmakers seeking to streamline the process is Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., one of several congresswomen who have recently come forward with their stories of sexual harassment.
Congress is grappling in other ways to deal with the issue of sexual harassment on Capitol Hill.
The House approved a resolution Wednesday that requires all lawmakers and their employees to complete an anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training program during each session of Congress.
The Senate passed a similar resolution earlier this month.
But there is no uniform policy on Capitol Hill that spells out misconduct.
Individual lawmakers’ offices formulate their own internal policies for employee behavior, so there could be 545 different interpretations of sexual harassment.