Congress quietly preserves ability to pay sexual harassment settlements with taxpayer money

Sen. Gillibrand said her legislation to reform the process was cut "at the last minute."

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) listens during a news conference in December 2017 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images
U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) listens during a news conference in December 2017 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images

An overhaul of Capitol Hill’s workplace misconduct system is in jeopardy and likely won’t be attached to a government spending bill this week, diminishing the likelihood of reform before the midterm elections, according to Politico.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), who introduced the bipartisan Congressional Harassment Reform Act last December, said on Monday that House and Senate leadership “stripped” provisions from the language from the spending bill at the eleventh hour.  

Advertisement

“I am appalled that House and Senate leadership removed provisions from the omnibus bill at the last minute that would have finally brought accountability and transparency to Congress’s sexual harassment reporting process,” said Gillibrand in a statement released Monday.

Among its provisions, the act requires that members of Congress personally pay for sexual harassment settlements when they are found liable. Currently, lawmakers can tap taxpayer funds to settle with victims. Also, unless the victim opts for privacy, under the act, settlements would automatically be made public, thus lifting the veil of secrecy around the process.   

The provisions, noted Gillibrand, passed unanimously in the House, and the act has broad support in the Senate.

“It begs the question: Who are they trying to protect? I can’t think of any legitimate reason to remove this language other than to protect members of Congress over taxpayers and congressional employees,” said Gillibrand, who on Monday called on the Senate leadership to bring the legislation to the floor for an immediate vote.

Advertisement

Congress is facing a Friday midnight deadline to approve its spending bill. And on Monday, Politico cited sources who reported that the harassment measure was unlikely to get attached to the spending bill, a shift that “jeopardizes” the chances that the bill would move forward and onto President Trump’s desk for a signature. 

However, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), disputed Gillibrand’s account that provisions of the act were on track to be included in the spending bill, according to Politico.

“The government funding bill is still being developed, so I don’t have any update on the final bill,”  spokesman Don Stewart told Politico in an email. “And while this important issue is being discussed, at no time was language from Sen. Gillibrand’s bill adopted to the legislation and/or stripped.”

 Gillibrand has been one of the most outspoken critics of Capitol Hill’s sexual harassment complaint process, calling the system “broken” and urging her colleagues to take action.

Advertisement

“Congress should never be able to play by their own set of rules or ever be above the law,” Gillibrand told CNN last November.

Others have called the system antiquated. For example, accusers must first agree to counseling and mediation before they may file a lawsuit, according to the Washington Post.  

Recently, reporters have uncovered several cases where members of Congress used taxpayer money to settle sexual harassment complaints filed by former staff members

Last month, in urging Senate leadership to take action on her bill, Gillibrand reminded her colleagues that an overhaul of the system is urgent. “The more time that goes by without addressing this broken system, the more people suffer,” Gillibrand wrote in a letter to McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY).