The Congressional Accountability and Hush Fund Elimination Act would prevent the use of taxpayer money to pay settlements or awards for workplace harassment and discrimination claims.
A 1995 law called the Congressional Accountability Act allows taxpayer funds to be used for paying settlements when members of Congress were accused of sexual harassment. Since then, $17 million of taxpayer money has been paid out in 264 individual cases.
At the time, the law was actually considered a step forward, because it ended what had been a longtime congressional exemption from discrimination and workplace lawsuits by employees. It faced virtually no opposition at the time, with a unanimous 390–0 House vote and a nearly unanimous 98–1 Senate vote. (Only the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) opposed.)
But in recent months, with a torrent of powerful men in politics and other professions felled by accusations of sexual harassment or sexual assault, a renewed focus has been placed on the 1995 law, with many calling for it to be updated for a different era.
What the bill does
The bill would:
- Bar the use of taxpayer funds for such settlement payments moving forward.
- Require taxpayer-funded payments previously issued through the years to be reimbursed to the U.S. Treasury by members of Congress.
- Void any previous non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) accompanying any previous settlements, allowing victims to speak up, and prevent such NDAs moving forward.
Labelled H.R. 4494 in the House, it was introduced by Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-FL6) in late November.
What supporters say
Supporters argue the bill would ensure American taxpayers aren’t on the hook for keeping secret these illegal actions committed by elected representatives.
“Members of Congress and staff cannot live under special rules,” DeSantis said in a press release. “The current system incentivizes misconduct and makes it difficult for victims. By exposing these secret settlements and by discontinuing using tax dollars to pay for member misconduct, this bill will reduce the incentive for bad behavior and bring more accountability to Congress.”
What opponents say
Washington lawyer Les Alderman, who has represented victims of sexual harassment, counters that the bill is a poor solution to a very real problem.
For one, the bill would retroactively eliminate the confidential nature of the existing settlements through the decades.
Confidentiality “protects [victims] from the media frenzy that follows when members of Congress are the subject of discrimination and harassment lawsuits. Confidentiality also helps those victims get their next jobs after (hopefully) extricating themselves from the discriminatory harassing environment,” Alderman wrote in an op-ed. “My clients expected that these settlements would stay private; in some cases, they wouldn’t have agreed to the settlement if they knew it would eventually become public.
The bill could also prevent victims from actually receiving the money to which they are entitled.
“Members of Congress rarely have the hundreds of thousands of dollars that are typically paid out in meritorious discrimination and harassment claims,” Alderman writes. “In many cases the proposed law would leave the victim with an empty and unenforceable judgment or settlement because the Congressperson simply does not — and never will — have the financial means to pay.
Odds of passage
The bill has attracted 88 bipartisan cosponsors: 63 Republicans and 25 Democrats. The cosponsors are about 18 percent female, approximately reflective of the House currently being 20 percent female. The bill awaits a vote in the House Administration Committee.
There are a few other bills introduced that would accomplish the same effect, but this one is perhaps the one gaining the most steam. Another variant is H.R. 4497 from Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL14), which has one bipartisan cosponsor from across the aisle.
The main legislation that has been getting attention in the wake of “the Silence Breakers” during the past two months is the ME TOO Act. While that would make several reforms to the status quo — including creating an in-house counsel for sexual harassment victims and granting interns the same protections as employees — it would not end the congressional slush funds.
(Castor — the lead House sponsor of H.R. 4497 — also advocates passing the ME TOO Act as an addition, not a replacement, to her bill.)