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Limiting sexual harassment payouts 'complicated,' lawmakers say

Kellie Mejdrich, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in Political News

WASHINGTON -- Lawmakers unanimously express disgust with sexual harassment payments that come out of federal coffers to cover the cost of elected officials' behavior. But members have a more complicated reaction when asked whether they would attach a funding limitation to a spending bill -- a common instrument used by lawmakers in appropriations -- to cut off payments from the Office of Compliance's Awards and Settlements Fund.

Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a top Republican appropriator, said, "Well, I don't have any problem with doing something like that; I think most people didn't even know it existed," when asked if he would support a funding limitation to block newly disclosed harassment payouts that are roiling Congress.

But he noted complexities when if he'd discussed the issue 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. "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 the House Administration Committee was working on legislation he expects "would probably be very bipartisan, and I would hope that it would be passed." He said a recently passed resolution from Rep. Barbara Comstock, D-Md.,"is sort of the first step." Comstock's resolution, which the House approved last Wednesday, would require anti-discrimination and anti-harassment training among members of Congress and their employees.

Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Maryland Democrat and former Baltimore County executive said that even the existence of the settlement fund was little known. "I didn't know that existed. I'm an appropriator. I didn't even know that existed. ... I deal with billions of dollars and trillions of dollars," he said.

 

"When I heard about it I thought, 'this is crazy.' I was Baltimore County Executive. I ran Baltimore County, about close to 800,000 people," Ruppersberger added. "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."

But Ruppersberger said he sees potential complications down the line with a funding limitation. "I think it needs to be dealt with and dealt with now, and I think if you do a standalone it gets more priority than going through appropriations," he said.

"I philosophically have a problem that, if somebody is sexually harassing, that you pay them off out of government money, I think that's wrong. I think we have to do away with that right away," Ruppersberger said.

"But I'm a lawyer too. So the problem is if you rely on a contract or whatever before this happened, it's wrong, but you know, both sides relied on that and both sides decided to do what they needed to do. ... And there are other immunity issues that have nothing to do with sexual harassment, whether a member gets sued or not sued."

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