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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."

Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., an outspoken supporter of so-called regular order in the legislative process, said he thought "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. But 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."

Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., 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 had not thought of using a funding limitation to bar payouts for claims stemming from sexual harassment by members of Congress.

Maloney liked the idea.

 

"Well, that's an interesting idea," Maloney said, adding he had not discussed the issue with his Democratic colleagues. When asked why discussion 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 on some funding limitations, Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Ind., 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 -- for paying out sexual harassment claims. But that wouldn't address the issue of Office of Compliance settlement funds that others are beginning to question.

The actual amount of payouts from the Awards and Settlements Fund have until recently been a mystery. But new information from the House Administration Committee Friday shed some light on that issue. The office reported an Awards and Settlement Fund has paid out $359,450 since fiscal 2013 to address six claims made against House-member led offices, $84,000 of which was for a sexual harassment claim, according to data released Friday by the committee.

A Senate Appropriations aide for the majority confirmed that authorizations for these payments were created by the Congressional Accountability Act, 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.

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 that $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 fiscal year 2017 enacted level 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.

(Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.)

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