Monday, November 27, 2017
Since 1997, Congress has paid at least $15 million to settle complaints about sexual harassment, racial discrimination, and violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act under the umbrella of the Congressional Accountability Act (CAA) of 1995.
The payments made to Rep. Conyers’s alleged victim came out of his taxpayer-funded office budget. Generally, though, these payments aren’t made by members of Congress or their offices. They’re made by a special section of the Department of the Treasury established under Section 415 of the CAA — and ultimately by the American taxpayer.
The process by which victims of sexual harassment on the Hill seek justice is long and arduous — it takes up to three months before a formal complaint can be filed. If a settlement is reached, it’s kept secret. The source of the money in the fund is excluded from the standard appropriations budget made public by Congress each year. There’s no process by which voters — or potential employees — can find out who the harassers in office are, what they’ve been accused of, or if they’ve settled with victims before.
The fund used to settle violations of the CAA is perhaps just one of the several pockets of money throughout the government used to handle judgments made against government employees. As harassment accusations topple prominent men in media, comedy, and Hollywood, it’s come under more scrutiny.
The Settlement and Awards Fund comes from an effort to hold Congress accountable for the federal laws that all other employers have to follow.
But as prominent men in other fields have faced snowballing accusations of sexual harassment, it’s instead shielded members of Congress from publicity.
In 1995, Congress passed the CAA, an effort to apply 12 federal laws to the legislative branch, including the Americans With Disabilities Act; the Fair Labor Standards Act, which requires that employers pay at least the minimum wage; and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, religion, national origin, color, or gender — including sexual harassment.
The CAA was, in part, a delayed legislative response to the Supreme Court's decision in Davis v. Passman (1979), implying a Bivens remedy for sex discrimination by Member of Congress from Louisiana, but with a 5-4 split and a dissent calling for Congressional immunity in employment matters absent a statutory extension of Title VII.