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Limiting Sexual Harassment Payouts ‘Complicated,’ Lawmakers Say

Funding limitation could be one response to sexual misconduct scandals roiling Capitol Hill

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said using the appropriations process to restrict settlement payouts was complex. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said using the appropriations process to restrict settlement payouts was complex. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Updated, 4:05 p.m. | Lawmakers have been quick to express their disgust with sexual harassment payments that come out of federal coffers to cover the cost of elected officials’ behavior. But members are more guarded when asked whether they would take action by attaching a funding limitation to a spending bill — a common instrument used by lawmakers in appropriations.

Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a top Republican appropriator, sounded cautious after last week’s revelation that the Office of Compliance has doled out tens of thousands of dollars since 2013.

When asked if he would support a funding limitation to block harassment payouts like the ones currently roiling Congress, he said, “I don’t have any problem with doing something like that.”

But he cited complexities when asked if he’d discussed such a fix with other members.

“Well, a huge percentage of this has been for like asbestos, or … anthrax settlements, so it’s not like this is all sexual harassment,” Cole said of money paid out from the OOC’s Awards and Settlements Fund.

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Six claims in five years have drained $359,450 from the fund, $84,000 of which was for a sexual harassment claim, according to data released Friday by the House Administration Committee. The data does not include settlements paid out of members’ own office budgets.

“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 taxpayers,” Cole said, adding that the House Administration Committee is working on legislation he expects “would probably be very bipartisan.”

“I would hope that it would be passed,” he said of the legislation, calling a resolution from Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock of Virginia “sort of the first step.” Comstock’s resolution, which the House approved Wednesday, would require anti-discrimination and anti-harassment training for all members of Congress and their employees.

Standing alone

Other appropriators said the existence of the settlements fund had come as a surprise.

“I didn’t know that existed. I’m an appropriator. I didn’t even know that existed,” said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Maryland Democrat and former Baltimore County executive. “I deal with billions of dollars and trillions of dollars.”

Ruppersberger denounced the fund, calling it “crazy.”

“I ran Baltimore County, about close to 800,000 people,” he said. “I would never have a fund like that for members of the Baltimore Council or things like that. I don’t know how long it was around. I don’t even know how it got started. But it needs to be transparent, and it’s the wrong thing to do.”

[How Congress Deals With Sexual Harassment in the Workplace]

Yet Ruppersberger balked at the idea of a funding limitation, saying it could cause potential complications down the line. “I think it needs to be dealt with and dealt with now … [but] if you do a standalone it gets more priority than going through appropriations,” he said.

Legal issues also give him pause, he said. “I philosophically have a problem that, if somebody is sexually harassing, that you pay them off out of government money,” Ruppersberger said. “But I’m a lawyer too. … If you rely on a contract or whatever before this happened, it’s wrong, but you know, both sides relied on that.”

Embracing limitation

Rep. Morgan Griffith, a Virginia Republican and an outspoken supporter of so-called regular order in the legislative process, said he thinks “if you’re doing it properly, you have it first reflected in the rules, and then followed up with an appropriation.”

He said he’d support a funding limitation. When asked why some members appear to be advocating separate legislation over a funding limitation on an appropriations bill, Griffith said, “Sometimes politics trumps regular order. Standalone is better politics.”

Democratic Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney of New York, who engaged in a major funding limitation debate during the fiscal 2017 appropriations season when he proposed an amendment to bar discrimination against certain federal contractors, said he hadn’t thought of using a funding limitation to bar payouts for claims stemming from sexual harassment by members of Congress.

Maloney likes the proposal.

“Well, that’s an interesting idea,” he said, adding that he had not discussed the issue with his Democratic colleagues. When asked why discussions hadn’t taken place about barring funding for such payments using appropriations, Maloney replied, “That’s a great question.”

“I wish I had thought of it,” he said.

In a sign that members are beginning to test the waters, Republican Rep. Jackie Walorski of Indiana introduced a resolution Friday that would prohibit members from using what is known as the members’ representational allowance — which funds expenses such as staff, travel, mail and office equipment — to pay out sexual harassment claims. But that wouldn’t affect the OOC settlements that others are beginning to question.

New scrutiny

Until now, the OOC payments have largely been a mystery. The data released Friday by the House Administration Committee has shed new light on a practice that is more than two decades old.

A Senate Appropriations aide for the majority confirmed that authorizations for the payments were created by the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995, and funds are appropriated through what’s known as a permanent appropriation. That means funds are disbursed from the Treasury on an as-needed basis.

As a spate of new sexual harassment allegations has gripped the nation and extended to Congress, only one sitting member has spoken publicly about benefiting from the fund. Texas Republican Rep. Blake Farenthold on Monday acknowledged that an OOC settlement had been paid out on his behalf and pledged to pay back the government.

The pledge came after Politico reported that Farenthold paid $84,000 in taxpayer money to settle with his former communications director, Lauren Greene, who accused him of discussing his “sexual fantasies” and “wet dreams.”

None of the other sexual harassment scandals that have rocked the Capitol this fall — including allegations against Michigan Democratic Rep. John Conyers Jr. — have involved OOC settlements.

In November it emerged that Conyers had paid $27,000 in wages to settle a wrongful dismissal complaint from a female employee who claimed the congressman fired her for rejecting his sexual advances. That money came from Conyers’ office, not from the OOC’s fund.

There is a line item for “salaries and expenses” in the fiscal 2018 legislative branch appropriations bills in the House and Senate. But a Senate Appropriations Committee aide for the majority said the $3.959 million line item does not include any settlement claims or awards.

Approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee on July 27, the Office of Compliance’s funding level was equal to the level enacted in fiscal year 2017 and $96,902 below the fiscal year 2018 request, according to the Senate committee report.

In the House, appropriators recommended the same. The bill was included as part of an omnibus package sent to the Senate in September.

Correction, 12:35 p.m. | An earlier version of this story misstated the party affiliation of Rep. Barbara Comstock. She is a Republican from Virginia.

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

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