Differing Approach to Sexual Harassment by Congress and the Federal Courts

Taxpayers will no longer be forced to pick up the tab for settlements resulting from the sexual harassment and retaliation of interns and staff by members of the U.S. Congress.

The news media reported Wednesday that House and Senate negotiators  agreed on compromise legislation that will require members of Congress to personally pay settlements or awards stemming from claims of harassment or retaliation claims based on sex, ethnicity, and race.

The proposed bill will amend the sadly misnomer Congressional Accountability Act of 1995, which currently insulates members of Congress from their sexual misdeeds rather than holding them accountable.

According to the Senate Rules Committee, the proposed bill will make members of Congress, including those who leave office, financially liable for settlements resulting from harassment and retaliation claims. The bill eliminates barriers to justice for victims, including mandatory counseling, mediation and a “cooling off” period that victims now must wait filing a lawsuit or requesting an administrative hearing. Settlements will be publicly disclosed and identify lawmakers who are liable.

The bill is a monumental step forward when compared to how another branch of the government, the  federal judiciary, has addressed the problem of sexual harassment by powerful, mostly male federal judges with lifetime appointments.

The Federal Judiciary Workplace Conduct Working Group studied the problem of sexual harassment last year after a prominent appellate judge, Alex Kosinsky of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, became the focus of more than a dozen sexual harassment complaints by law clerks, law students and staff. Kosinsky, 67, resigned with his full pension, short-circuiting an investigation.

The working group issued vague conclusions last summer that drew bi-partisan criticism in Congress. For example, the working group recommended creating a process so employees could make alternative work arrangements “when egregious conduct by a judge or supervisor makes it untenable for the employee to continue to work for that judge or supervisor.”  Senate Judiciary Chairperson Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, effectively called the report a whitewash that “didn’t indicate how its recommendations will prevent a similar scenario (a reference to Kosinsky) from happening again.” He also criticized the lack of an inspector general position to oversee the federal courts.

The Congressional Office of Compliance has since 2008 used taxpayer funds to pay $199,000 to settle four sexual harassment claims by members of Congress. In the past year, more than a half-dozen lawmakers resigned after being accused of sexual misconduct.

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