Hush money paid for by taxpayers. Unbelievable.
Members of Congress were caught flat-footed this week when it became common knowledge that U.S. taxpayers are funding an account that pays out to women who accuse lawmakers and staff of sexual harassment.
The payouts, to the tune of a cool $17 million, are a shameless method of keeping explosive allegations out of courts and the media. It's a strategy, complete with confidentiality agreements, designed by men in power to protect themselves and a system of abuse that can no longer be contained.
Quad-Cities Reps. Cheri Bustos and Dave Loebsack, both Democrats, blasted the long-ignored fund and demanded disclosure of any payouts. At least theirs was a substantially stronger response than from Sen. Joni Ernst. Ernst's office issued an empty statement about "taking a closer look" and "holding people accountable."
According to Politico, several angry House Republicans -- who had been unaware of the hush money account -- rightly went one further in closed door meetings this week. It's all coming to a head now that allegations against the likes of Sen. Al Franken, D-Minnesota, and Rep. John Conyers, D-Michigan, have punched a hole through Congress' self-constructed safety net.
Transparency is a laudable aim, especially if it gives real incentive for Washington to purge itself of rampant abuse. Yet simply outing lawmakers who tap the fund misses at least half of the point.
It's utterly indefensible for U.S. taxpayers to pay for the legal fees of lawmakers who can't control their libidos or respect those around them.
That was the point made by a number of House Republicans during Wednesday's caucus meeting, Politico reported.
"I think there’s a pretty strong feeling that frankly those things ought to be public and those things ought to be paid for by the individual responsible, not by the taxpayer,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, after the House Republican confab.
Rep. Roger Williams, R-Texas, was among the most stalwart insisting that Congress members should saddle their own legal liability, sources told reporters.
Williams nailed it.
U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, has offered legislation that would significantly bolster how sexual harassment complaints are handled on Capitol Hill. The legislation would end a mandatory 30-day mediation period after a complaint is filed with the Office of Compliance. It would require mandatory sexual harassment training, an idea pitched by Iowa's Sens. Ernst and Chuck Grassley. And it would open up the complaint and investigatory process to interns, an at-risk population now shamefully without many options.
Gillibrand's bill should receive full-throated support from any lawmaker actually interested in stemming Washington's plague outbreak that's quickly consuming legislatures throughout the country. But, at the end of the day, a key goal must be killing, once and for all, the hush fund.
The two approaches are not mutually exclusive. Both chambers' ethics committees should adopt policies that make public and transparent any hearings of lawmakers accused of harassment.
And taxpayers should no longer be on the hook for a fund that's sole purpose is protecting members of Congress and high-ranking staff from public scrutiny.