In the past 20 years, Congress has shelled out $17 million in sexual harassment and discrimination settlements. And by Congress, we mean you, the taxpayer.

And that’s likely just a hint of the problem on Capitol Hill, as the unique system covering lawmakers and their aides serves to discourage claims and protect high-level harassers.

A bill to reform that system passed the House easily and, according to its Senate sponsor, was set to be part of the spending bill that must be passed by Friday night to keep the federal government running, but has now been stripped out, putting its ultimate passage in danger. Congress, as an institution, is protecting itself at the expense of the rights of taxpayers, and the needs of the victims of workplace misconduct.

The bill, from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and with 30 Senate co-sponsors, would change how the Office of Compliance operates. Established in 1995 after allegations against Sen. Robert Packwood of Oregon, the Office of Compliance handles complaints of discrimination and sexual harassment in the legislative branch, and does so differently than in other government agencies.

Employees who file a complaint against a member or another staffer must do so within 180 days of the incident. They then must first undergo 30 days of counseling followed by 30 days of mediation before they can pursue a hearing or lawsuit.

And while other federal agencies must pay out settlements or awards from their own office funds, Congress makes such payments through a special U.S. Treasury fund, and they are kept confidential.


“It is not a victim-friendly process,” said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif. “It is an institution-protection process.”

Gillibrand’s bill would eliminate the counseling and mediation requirements for victims, and would force lawmakers to themselves pay for misconduct claims when they are found personally liable. It also would mandate a public report on taxpayer funds used for settlements.

The must-pass spending bill was seen as the best hope for passing the legislation in the Senate, after it passed the House by a voice vote. Gillibrand says the language was in the spending bill until it was removed, with House Democrats blaming Senate Democrats for wanting to weaken the changes. In any case, the sexual harassment language was not in the bill that was voted on Thursday.

It is imperative that Congress pass this legislation in some form. According to The Washington Post, at least 15 members have stepped down or chose not to seek re-election after facing claims of sexual misconduct, and that’s just the claims that have surfaced through a system designed to silence them.

After the Packwood scandal, a survey found that one-third of female congressional employees had experienced sexual harassment. It is a demanding workplace requiring the kind of long hours that meld professional and social lives, staffed by young people who are desperate to move up the ladder.

(See also our own State House, where troubling stories of harassment have surfaced in the past few months. A bill to increase education and training around sexual harassment for legislators, lobbyists and staffers has been successful in initial votes.)

The proposed federal changes wouldn’t alter the power dynamics that allow harassment to flourish on Capitol Hill, but they would make it easier for staffers to come forward, and they would provide some accountability for members where there is little now. A system that uses taxpayer money and the weight of government to silence victims is unacceptable.

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