If you're a victim of sexual harassment and you work for Congress, you can't complain to the human resources department.
You can't file a lawsuit, either — at least not until you've gone through months of mandatory counseling and mediation designed to keep such complaints out of court. And out of the public eye.
That's all spelled out in the laughably named Congressional Accountability Act, a special set of rules designed to protect the people who wrote them.
Instead of HR, claims are handled by the congressional Office of Compliance. It receives allegations of sexual harassment, salary discrimination and other workplace issues, and pays out settlements — with money supplied by the U.S. Treasury — if the parties reach an agreement. Since 1997, taxpayers have shelled out $15.2 million.
Think of it as the Taxpayer Hush Money Fund. You pay, and the complaints go away. Those records aren't subject to the federal Freedom of Information Act. The compliance office doesn't disclose the names of congressmen or their aides who reach settlements with their accusers. A case becomes public only if mediation fails and the victim later wins a favorable ruling in federal court or through an administrative process.
Does this remind you a little of the Illinois General Assembly? It should. The current national uproar over sexual harassment, amplified by the revelation that a complaint against a state senator had languished in the inspector general's office for a year, drew attention to the phony system that's supposed to police legislative misconduct.
A not-so-surprising revelation of the #MeToo movement is that sexual harassment is rampant in state Capitols across the nation. The ingredients are all there: power, ego, a disproportionate supply of testosterone and an abundance of ambitious young staffers. In an environment built on relationships, victims worry that speaking up could be a career killer.
In Springfield, the #MeToo uprising led to the speedy passage of a law that explicitly makes sexual harassment an ethics violation, with a $5,000 penalty. But the ethics system itself is still designed to stifle and conceal complaints.
That's the game in Washington, too. The law gives an accuser 180 days to report an incident. That flies in the face of everything we know about how hard it is for victims of sexual abuse to come forward. And the initial report isn't even a complaint — it's a "request for counseling." It becomes a complaint only if counseling and mediation fail. Those steps should be optional, not mandatory.
"It is not a victim-friendly process," Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., told The Washington Post. "It is an institution-protection process."
At least one member, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., reached a legal agreement with an accuser outside of that process. The settlement was paid from his office fund, also with taxpayer dollars.
Speier wants to overhaul the system through the Member and Employee Training and Oversight on Congress (or ME TOO CONGRESS) Act. It would require the compliance office to publicly name lawmakers who have tapped that settlement fund, for how much and how often. It would make lawmakers, not taxpayers, liable for payments. It would eliminate the rules that bind victims to confidentiality during counseling and mediation.
A word about those secrecy agreements: Let's stop pretending they exist to shield accusers from embarrassment. That perpetuates the lie that there is shame in being a victim. Keeping quiet about sexual abuse has allowed it to flourish on Capitol Hill, judging from the 1,500 former congressional aides who signed a letter demanding changes.
The #MeToo movement has emboldened victims to step forward in numbers that surprised many men, but not many women. The days of being quiet are over.
— Chicago Tribune