EDITORIAL: Congress must cleanse itself to save itself
There may be no institution more disliked and distrusted by the American people than the U.S. Congress. By its actions and inaction it has earned an awful popularity rating — which it re-enforces almost daily.
Not so sure about your own opinion? Here’s an outrage recently uncovered by the Washington Post that might affect your thinking, and it’s just one among many: Congress’ Office of Compliance has paid out over the last 20 years $17.2 million to settle a shocking 264 complaints of sexual harassment and other Capitol Hill workplace violations by members of Congress and staff.
This was public money, used as hush money, to keep the bad behavior secret.
It worked until the lid was blown off the issue of sexual harassment by the recent and continuing series of disclosures that has outed as sexual harassers and abusers a shameful parade of powerful men — entertainers, media giants, and powerful politicians among them.
This isn’t new news. We addressed the issue in this space a few days ago following a statement from the non-partisan government watchdog group Common Cause. In a news release and accompanying letter to members of Congress, the public interest organization called on members to pass legislation closing loopholes and disclosing settlements that have “allowed members to hide sexual harassment and other abuses for decades.”
The measures sought by Common Cause are both sensible and necessary: a prohibition on congressional offices from using any “hush fund” to pay for sexual harassment settlements. “The American public deserves to know that their hard-earned tax dollars are not being used to protect sexual harassers,” Common Cause President Karen Hobert Flynn wrote in a letter to members of Congress.
To that end, we called on our own Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick to accept the challenge much as he did on his very first day in office when he introduced an array of government reform measures, some of which targeted congressional excesses and abuses. We are pleased to note and also proud that the congressman has risen to the challenge.
Introduced Thursday with Fitzpatrick as an original cosponsor, the Congressional Accountability and Hush Fund Elimination Act would bar the use of public money to settle sexual harassment or assault claims; disclose all such previous settlements; require assaulters and harassers to reimburse taxpayers with interest; prohibit non-disclosure agreements as a precondition to address a claim; and allow victims to make public statements about their claim.
We’re not lawyers, but the legislation seems comprehensive and appears to address all the issues raised by Common Cause. It gets our vote and should get the vote of every member of Congress.
But this isn’t the only legislative effort Fitzpatrick is supporting, just the most important. He also backs another new bill, the Settlement Tax Deductions are Over for Predators Act (STOP), which eliminates as business deductions legal settlements related to sexual assault and harassment.
The congressman also is a cosponsor of the ME TOO Congress Act, which sets criteria to address sexual harassment in all congressional branch offices. And he supports legislation requiring all members of the House and their staff to complete sexual harassment prevention and response training. Finally, Fitzpatrick is leading a bipartisan effort calling for an investigation into the misuse of taxpayer dollars for sexual misconduct settlements.
Calling the settlements “unbelievable” and “unacceptable,” Fitzpatrick said Congress “must stand with the victims of this harassment and take swift action to root out those who should sexually harass any other person, regardless of position or title.”
If every member of Congress were of the same mind, perhaps this long-tainted institution might begin to change public perception.