Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
WASHINGTON – With Congress facing intense pressure to confront sexual harassment in its midst, New Mexico’s congressional delegation is calling for an end to secret settlements of Capitol Hill complaints that leave taxpayers footing the bill.
The U.S. House and Senate are mulling legislation that would make public any financial settlements for harassment by members of Congress and force them to pay for many of those past settlements. The identity of the person lodging the complaint would remain private. All five members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation told the Journal this week that they support such legislation.
The U.S. House and Senate also this month – with support from New Mexico’s delegation – voted to make sexual harassment training mandatory for all congressional members and staffers.
“Congress is not above the law,” said Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M. “Victims and whistleblowers must be protected from retaliation and no member of Congress should be allowed to cover up settlements or hide their guilt. Taxpayers have a right to know how their money is being spent and why. This includes past spending on settlements.”
The action on Capitol Hill comes as a slew of powerful men, including current and would-be members of Congress, are facing accusations of sexual impropriety. Democratic Rep. John Conyers of Michigan this week stepped down from his post as the ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee amid allegations that he tried to coerce sex from staffers. New Mexico’s Democratic Reps. Ben Ray Luján and Michelle Lujan Grisham on Thursday both called on Conyers to resign.
Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota also is under fire for allegedly groping women without their consent. Democratic Sens. Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall of New Mexico have urged a Senate ethics investigation of Franken’s conduct but have stopped short of calling for his ouster.
Meanwhile, Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama, the Republican candidate in a special election on Dec. 12, is accused of preying on underage girls decades ago. Pearce, the New Mexico delegation’s only Republican, declined to comment on the Moore controversy when asked about it by the Journal on Thursday. He provided a statement that said in part: “No person is above the law anywhere in this country for any office or in any walk of life.”
All five members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation told the Journal they have written sexual harassment policies in place for their employees. According to a Politico report this week, not all congressional offices have such policies.
Since 1997, the little-known Office of Congressional Compliance has paid out more than $15 million to settle a wide variety of claims, an unknown number for sexual harassment. Taxpayers currently pay the tab for the secretive settlements.
“We’re at an important moment in our country when victims of sexual harassment and violence feel they can reveal truths and experiences they never felt safe to talk about before,” Udall told the Journal. “Hostile workplaces are far too common in this country, and many people in positions of authority have gotten away with harassment and intimidation for far too long. This behavior is never OK, never acceptable in any setting, and we should all be committed to making it stop.”
In addition to the House and Senate resolutions that require sexual harassment training for members of Congress and their staffs, both chambers are looking at broader bills that would overhaul how Congress handles harassment claims. Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, have introduced companion bills in their respective chambers. In addition to unmasking settlements, the legislation would allow congressional interns to use the same system for filing harassment cases as full-time employees, and mandate that every congressional office publicly post information about employees’ rights. All of New Mexico’s congressional Democrats have co-sponsored those House and Senate bills.
Pearce has co-sponsored a similar Republican bill introduced by Rep. Ron DeSantis of Florida this week that would require the Office of Compliance to disclose on its website all payments to settle sexual assault claims, including all past claims. The legislation specifies that the victims’ names could not be made public. Also under the DeSantis bill, any member of Congress who has used the confidential Office of Compliance fund to settle sexual harassment claims since 1995 would be required to reimburse the government, with interest.
Lujan Grisham, the New Mexico congressional delegation’s only woman, said changes to congressional procedures for handling sexual harassment are long overdue.
“For too long, the current system has undermined victim rights and kept the American people in the dark,” she said. “These changes will shine a light on how sexual assault and misconduct cases are handled in order to promote a positive, productive work environment that will facilitate culture change in Congress.”