I think we can all agree that the last omnibus spending bill passed by Congress and signed by President Trump was a disappointment to just about everyone. One exclusion is puzzling, though, given that it remains a hot-button issue capable of derailing political careers. Some common sense measures in response to the #MeToo movement are absent. Why were taxpayer-funded settlements not addressed?
During a week that brings the first congresswoman to nix re-election plans over how she handled sexual harassment and abuse, including a death threat, in her own office, the fact that Congress is still struggling to complete some fairly basic work on this issue is frustrating. As reported in Roll Call, bi-partisan efforts are underway to renew efforts to bring forward a bill addressing the issue via legislation. Three Democrat women were specifically mentioned – Rep. Jackie Speier and Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Kirsten Gillibrand – and I think it is a smart move to focus on how complaints are handled and to end taxpayers being on the hook for a non-transparent fund used to settle claims. That should be a no-brainer.
The spending package, however, omitted proposed major changes to the process for reporting complaints of harassment and discrimination and any requirement that lawmakers personally reimburse the Treasury for harassment settlements.
The House has adopted additional protections for its employees through resolutions, but the Senate has yet to act.
Speier blamed McConnell for the omnibus lacking the bipartisan House bill, which would overhaul the process for reporting and responding to sexual harassment and bar taxpayer-funded settlements.
I’ll note the irony of Rep. Esty co-sponsoring a bill that was a part of the omnibus spending bill, though, which includes funding for initiatives passed by the House. Also included are protections for Library of Congress employees. It takes a particular kind of hypocrite for Esty to release the following statement during this discussion, given her own bungling of the issue in her office. Though, at least in Esty’s case, she did personally reimburse the fund for the $5,000 paid out to her staffer.
“In Congress, and workplaces across the country, we need stronger workplace protections and to provide employees with a platform to raise concerns, address problems, and work to reduce and eliminate such occurrences, in the first place,” she added.
Fingers are pointed at a lack of expediency in the Senate now and at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for dropping the ball. So, all female members of the Senate have signed a letter demanding McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer get their acts together and bring the bi-partisan House legislation to the floor.
It’s not yet clear if a bipartisan call from female senators will be strong enough to prompt Senate leadership to take up legislation to protect staff on Capitol Hill when lawmakers return Monday from a two-week recess. All 22 female Republican and Democratic senators signed on to a letter last week urging Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer to bring House-passed legislation to the floor.
Congress doesn’t have major legislation on the horizon, with fiscal 2018 government funding already signed into law and re-election fights raging ahead of the November midterms. Whether the calls for action on sexual harassment legislation will yield a spot in the wide-open floor schedule remains to be seen.
McConnell’s spokesman affirmed that McConnell supports those accused of wrongdoing paying their own settlements but drafting legislation has not been completed.
This is what is actually included in the omnibus spending bill:
The omnibus signed into law last month included $5 million in funding for anti-harassment and discrimination efforts implemented in the House.
Training on preventing harassment and discrimination in the workplace is now mandatory for all House members and staff and is funded at $4 million. House training, required under a resolution adopted in November, must be in person, address options for bystanders, and trainees must be allowed to ask questions anonymously.
The House’s new Office of Employee Advocacy, which provides legal advice to victims going through the complaint and resolution process, will receive $1 million.
The Office of Compliance, which enforces workplace protections under the Congressional Accountability Act, saw a $1 million boost in the omnibus. The extra funds could go toward supporting the Library of Congress, as the omnibus brought it under the full protections of the CAA.
That’s a lot of taxpayer money for behavior modification. It is amazing to me that grown adults have to be “trained” on how to act like decent human beings with colleagues. Given that we know most of those who have quietly paid off accusers through the fund can well afford to foot their own settlement costs, it is particularly galling that taxpayers are still on the hook. The Congressional Accountability Act has been in effect since 1995 and taxpayers have shelled out $17 million so far. I think if more abusers knew that funds were no longer available from a slush fund that would be the most effective deterrent of all.