The fund that settles sexual harassment cases in the legislative branch is unlimited and funded by taxpayers.
On Monday night, BuzzFeed broke the story that Michigan Rep. John Conyers paid a former staffer thousands of dollars in a settlement in 2015 after sexually harassing her and other women in his office and then firing her for refusing his advances.
He likely isn’t the only member of Congress to settle a harassment case. Since 1997, Congress has paid at least $15 million to settle complaints about sexual harassment, racial discrimination, and violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act under the umbrella of the Congressional Accountability Act (CAA) of 1995.
The payments made to Rep. Conyers’s alleged victim came out of his taxpayer-funded office budget. Generally, though, these payments aren’t made by members of Congress or their offices. They’re made by a special section of the Department of the Treasury established under Section 415 of the CAA — and ultimately by the American taxpayer.
The process by which victims of sexual harassment on the Hill seek justice is long and arduous — it takes up to three months before a formal complaint can be filed. If a settlement is reached, it’s kept secret. The source of the money in the fund is excluded from the standard appropriations budget made public by Congress each year. There’s no process by which voters — or potential employees — can find out who the harassers in office are, what they’ve been accused of, or if they’ve settled with victims before.
The fund used to settle violations of the CAA is perhaps just one of the several pockets of money throughout the government used to handle judgments made against government employees. As harassment accusations topple prominent men in media, comedy, and Hollywood, it’s come under more scrutiny.