WASHINGTON— If lawmakers really want to ferret out the scope of sexual harassment within their ranks—and crack down on the bad actors—they will have to change an obscure federal law that currently keeps complaints and settlements private.
The once-sleepy Office of Compliance, which handles congressional labor and employment disputes, has no power to investigate sexual harassment complaints or enforce settlements. And it operates under a cloak of confidentiality that shields both accusers and the accused alike.
“So we’re not getting anything?” Rep. Susan Brooks, R-Ind., asked at a House Administration Committee hearing on sexual harassment in Congress Thursday.
Brooks’ question came after she asked the compliance office to provide her with detailed information about sexual harassment claims made against House members or their staffs.
The compliance office provided this answer by letter on Thursday: “All counseling and mediation conducted by the Office of Compliance is ‘strictly confidential’ and all administrative proceedings and deliberations are ‘confidential’.”
Susan Tsui Grundmann, executive director of the compliance office, said she could only release information if a case had gone to a hearing officer and if the complainant had been consulted. Many cases are settled before they reach the hearing stage.
“The law doesn’t allow us to release anything to your committee,” Grundmann told Brooks on Thursday. Brooks participated in Thursday’s hearing because she is the chairwoman of the House Ethics Committee, which could investigate sexual harassment allegations if it had the names of accused lawmakers’ offices.
“We need to pursue instances of bad behavior in offices,” Brooks told USA TODAY after Thursday’s hearing. “Numbers don’t help us do that. We actually were trying to obtain names of offices.”
Also on Thursday, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., asked the Office of Compliance to disclose the number of sexual harassment claims filed against senators and their staffers--along with the amount of monetary settlements reached in any harassment cases. He said that would not breach confidentiality agreements because he’s not seeking to reveal the identities of any accusers.
But Kaine is likely to get the same answer that Brooks did: zilch.
Thursday’s hearing before the House Administration Committee was the second session in recent weeks to examine how sexual harassment complaints are handled in Congress. It comes as sexual harassment allegations have engulfed Congress and claimed the careers of two prominent Democratic lawmakers.
On Tuesday, John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat and civil-rights icon, resigned the seat he held for more than five decades, after several women accused him of making unwanted sexual advances. On Thursday, Sen. Al Franken said he would resign in the coming weeks after eight women accused him of groping them or trying to kiss them without content.
“There is no place for sexual harassment in our society, especially in Congress, period,” Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., chairman of the Administration Committee, said at Thursday’s hearing.
Harper and others on the panel seemed to agree that a 20-year-old law governing sexual harassment complaints in Congress needs a major overhaul. But there was no clear consensus in how they would do that.
At issue is the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act, which was designed to subject lawmakers in Congress to the same harassment and discrimination laws that other American employers must follow. But that 1995 law requires that settlements be kept secret and allows lawmakers’ offices to use taxpayer money to pay claims.
And while the Office of Compliance is allowed to investigate other violations of federal law, such as unsafe working conditions, they cannot investigate sexual harassment. When Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., asked why that was the case, no one at Thursday’s hearing could answer him.
“We have those same questions,” said Grundmann.
Daniel Crowley, a former counsel to the House Administration Committee who helped usher through the 1995 law, said he couldn’t remember why it was crafted with so few teeth.
Brooks and others said Congress needs to proceed carefully—balancing the desire to crack down on sexual harassers in Congress and the need to protect victims who do not want to wage a pubic battle.
“These are very difficult decisions on behalf of victims,” said Brooks, adding that lawmakers might want to allow for flexibility in how each case in handled.
“You want to ensure that the person coming forward has as many options available” as possible, Brooks said.
Contributing: Todd Spangler and Deborah Barfield Berry