Taxpayers shouldn't foot the bill for Capitol Hill's harassment hush money

In a rare bipartisan move, two North Carolina Congressmen have joined the effort to hold their peers accountable

By Lauryn Higgins
Published January 2, 2018 4:59AM (EST)
 (Salon/Ilana Lidagoster)
(Salon/Ilana Lidagoster)

This feature is part of Salon's Young Americans initiative, showcasing emerging journalists reporting from America's red states. Read more Young Americans stories.

ya-embed-logoThere have been times when the last month of 2017 felt like peeking into the worst Advent calendar imaginable. With each morning, the excitement of opening a new door to uncover a sweet surprise quickly turned into learning another alleged predator has been lurking amongst us. Sometimes for decades.

Producers. Journalists. Moguls. Celebrities. And Congress. No party has gone unscathed by these allegations, and while Doug Jones's recent win in the Alabama Senate election against accused child molester Roy Moore reassured many that this was a step in the right direction, Jones's less than eloquent comments about “moving on” and focusing on “real issues” are just further proof that we have a long road ahead.

The cracks that have been made must be repaired, a responsibility that has in traditionally fallen into the hands of taxpayers. Since 1997, $17 million in public money has been paid out to handle workplace disputes on Capitol Hill. These disputes are not just for sexual harassment; some matters include overpay, racial and gender discrimination and workplace safety. However, because the United States Congress Office of Compliance does not release the breakdown of where these funds go, taxpayers have virtually no clue how much of their money is going to settle sexual harassment claims.Without any accountability and no public records of these settlements, there is also no system in place to warn future victims that they may be working with an accused attacker.

Fortunately, roughly two dozen senators have crossed party lines and agreed that something must be done to solve this issue. Representative Jackie Speier (D-California) has been gaining support from GOP members for new legislation that would force congressional leaders to be personally liable for all harassment claims brought on them. This includes the financial burden that these cases inevitably bring.

Two of those GOP members include North Carolina's Walter Jones and Robert Pittenger. In late November, Jones released a press release announcing the introduction of H.R. 4494, the Congressional Accountability and Hush Fund Elimination Act. In his release, Jones refers to the funds that have been used to protect congressional leaders as "hush money," and outlines how the new bill will go beyond just prohibiting the use of public money to pay settlements for sexual harassment or assault claims. The bill will also require all previous payments issued to be disclosed by the Office of Compliance on their website, and the victim's name is prohibited from being printed. The bill will further require perpetrators to reimburse the taxpayers with interest and prohibit nondisclosure agreements as a "precondition to initiate procedures to address sexual harassment or assault claims." The bill will allow victims of sexual harassment or assault to speak publicly, regardless of any former signed nondisclosure agreement. 

While the bill will take time to pass through the necessary levels of government, the most recent move in an attempt to prevent or at the most address these sexual harassment allegations in a more timely and professional manner has come from both the House and the Senate. They have moved to requiring harassment training for all lawmakers and aides, and will demand the training be completed in person. And as Jones stated in November, “American taxpayers’ hard-earned money should not be used to pay sexual harassment settlements involving members of Congress. Those funds should come out of the members’ pocket, not the taxpayers."

Lauryn Higgins

Lauryn Higgins is a native Tar Heel and currently a graduate student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, she is Salon's Young American journalist for the state of North Carolina. Her hope is to provide an accurate portrait of the state's current affairs with an organic ethos and an on the ground perspective. Her unwavering belief in authentic truth-telling and passion to make news accessible and understandable for everyone, is what drew her to this project, and to the field of journalism. Website: Twitter @laurynhiggins22 Instagram @laurynhiggins

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Congress Doug Jones Jackie Speier Robert Pittenger Roy Moore Sexual Harassment Walter Jones