Federal records suggest that race and gender discrimination, as well as sexual harassment, make up a significant portion of the complaints raised by legislative branch employees that routinely result in hundreds of thousands of dollars in settlement payments each year.
But the way federal records are kept makes it impossible to tell with any precision exactly how much is being paid out for each settlement, and for what reason.
The funding for these settlements is suddenly in the spotlight thanks to the recent revelation that two sitting House members have been accused of sexual misconduct, and a new report that Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., paid a woman $27,000 after she accused him of seeking sexual favors.
The Conyers settlement came out of his congressional office fund, not from a separate appropriation from Congress. But in most cases, Congress is able to appropriate any money it needs for these settlements, and Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., told a House hearing this month that more than $15 million was paid out to settle claims against lawmakers and staff over more than a decade. The Office of Compliance said $17 million was paid out over the last 20 years.
Those numbers outraged many in the public who say taxpayers shouldn't have to foot the bill for inappropriate activities by lawmakers, staff and other legislative branch employees. Many have also called for more transparency about why the payments are being made.
However, it is impossible under current law to learn the specific reason for each payout because the terms are kept secret under the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act.
“The statistics on payments are not further broken down into specific claims because settlements may involve cases that allege violations of more than one of the 13 statutes incorporated by the CAA,” Susan Tsui Grundmann, Executive Director of the Office of Compliance, said in a statement.
The office noted, however, that very few of the complaints and settlements come from congressional offices. Other legislative branch offices include the Library of Congress, the Architect of the Capitol, the Congressional Budget Office, Capitol Police, and Government Accountability Office.
“A large portion of cases come from employing offices in the legislative branch other than the House of Representatives or the Senate,” and involve a variety of complaints related to medical leave and fair labor standards outlined in federal law, the OOC reported.
But while it's hard to be precise, available federal records show that racial and gender discrimination, along with sexual harassment, are leading to many of the payouts.
For example, the most expensive year was fiscal year 2007, when $4,053,274 was paid in 25 legislative branch cases, according to the Office of Compliance.
The Office of Compliance's annual report for that year shows that a plurality of “contacts” with the office came from employees or employers asking about discrimination or sexual harassment, which is a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Of the 398 contacts with the office that year, 99 broadly involved “harassment,” according to the report. By comparison, the OOC reported 35 contacts made in reference to Family Medical Leave Act and 45 inquiries about the “prohibition of intimidation or reprisal” in the workplace.
The following year, there were just 265 contacts made with the Office of Compliance, and again, about a quarter of them involved discrimination and sexual harassment.
The Office of Compliance uses different ways to organize the data from year to year, which makes it hard to compare data sets. In 2016, for example, a group of complaints dealing with discrimination, which includes sexual harassment, comprised 198 of 284 inquiries.
Congress appropriated $588,049 for 15 settlements in fiscal year 2016.
Congress could soon consider legislation that would end the secrecy surrounding the payouts.
Speier has introduced legislation that if passed, would reform the reporting process for reporting and seeking help for sexual harassment. It would also require publication of “the name of the employing office and the amount of the award or settlement” provided by the OOC.
The bill would modify the current confidentiality requirements that Speier said have "permanently silenced victims of all types of workplace discrimination.” Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called on Congress to pass the Speier legislation.
Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has not indicated whether he will take up the measure, but he announced the House will vote on a bill to require mandatory sexual harassment training for staff and lawmakers.
On Tuesday, the House Ethics Committee announced it has opened an investigation into the allegations against Conyers, who is the longest serving member of Congress and the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., told the Washington Examiner in a statement that Congress needs to take action in response to reports about harassment payouts.
"I am deeply concerned about recent reports of harassment in congressional offices and that taxpayer dollars have been used in settlements," Goodlatte said. "Sexual harassment and misconduct cannot be tolerated anywhere, and that includes Congress. In addition to mandatory training for congressional offices, it is becoming increasingly clear that the House of Representatives needs to improve its policies and procedures to better protect victims of harassment in the workplace."