OPINION: Broken systems perpetuate sexual misconduct on Capitol Hill

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It seems that in the aftermath of the scandal surrounding movie producer Harvey Weinstein, allegations of sexual harassment and assault against powerful men are flying left and right.

There are many reasons why women who have previously stayed silent are coming forward, one of which is that there finally seems to be real punishment for these crimes.

Maybe there hasn’t been any legal turnover yet, but it seems that these predators are not, in fact, too big to touch. Harvey Weinstein was banished from his own media empire. This comes just months after television host Bill O’Reilly was removed from Fox News and forced to pay more than $30 million from his own pocket (granted, he will be returning to Fox eventually).

Even politicians are facing blowback for their sexually charged offenses, no matter which side of the aisle they sit on. Recent reports from a variety of news outlets have revealed an increasing number of sexual misconduct cases taking place on Capitol Hill.

Roy Moore, Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, and Al Franken, Democratic senator from Minnesota, are among the accused. Even former president George H. W. Bush is on the list of names, accused of groping a women in the 1990s.

Representatives Jackie Speier from California and Barbara Comstock from Virginia shared stories from anonymous staffers who experienced instances of sexually charged behavior from unnamed lawmakers, two of whom still have their jobs on Capitol Hill.

Unfortunately, sexual misconduct among politicians does not seem to be punished as harshly as it is in the entertainment industry.

Kevin Spacey, an actor who plays a fictional president on television, had his show “House of Cards” immediately canceled after a single accusation of sexual harassment. Meanwhile, Donald Trump was still elected president after nearly 20 women came forward to accuse him of sexual misconduct. Why is this?

I did some digging and came across a video of Trevor Noah outlining the protocols for reporting sexual crimes in the legislative branch of the United States government. I was sort of taken aback by the policies he discussed and found myself reading the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 handbook developed by the Office of Compliance, which is an 88-page document detailing what exactly this piece of legislation is.

The Office of Compliance is an independent, non-partisan agency that exercises “investigatory and enforcement authority” in regards to congressional accountability.

According to the CAA handbook, the act applies workplace conduct laws to Congress and other affiliated institutions. The rules of the CAA are strict. The legislation requires that every step of the complaint filing process be completed before a solution is presented. If any step is not carried out or an “established timeline” is not followed, all claims are essentially in jeopardy.

All claims must be made within 180 days of the alleged violation, which is slightly less than six months. After filing a claim, there is a mandated 30-day counseling period that begins after a written request for counseling is filed.

Once the counseling stage has been completed, the complaint filer has 15 days to request mediation. Mediation is designed “to provide a confidential, informal means of settling disputes,” and it lasts another 30 days.

In the instance that mediation does not succeed, the employee can file a suit in the Federal District Court or request an administrative hearing within 30 and 90 days (no more, no less) of the official end of mediation.

If either party involved in the dispute is “dissatisfied with the final decision,” a request for review by the Board of Directors must be made within 30 days of when the decision was recorded with the Office of Compliance.

In a worst case scenario, it could potentially take up to 375 days — over a year — before a congressional sexual assault victim sees justice.

Tracy Manzer, a spokesperson for Speier, reported in a CNN article that approximately 80 percent of the individuals who report sexual misconduct in the U.S. Congress have chosen not to report the incident to the Office of Compliance.

On Nov. 16, the Office of Compliance released a document detailing some of the fiscal information associated with the CAA. While the data enclosed in the document doesn’t report payment information regarding specific claims, it does cite that between the years 1997 and 2017, there were more than 260 cases of recorded settlements with the Office of Compliance.

Of those cases, it is impossible to discern under which section of the CAA the violations were made, but it does say that that a “large portion” of the reported cases originate from “employing offices in the legislative branch,” which includes the House of Representatives and the Senate.

In accordance with the CAA, on the chance that the employee who filed the claim prevails in the case, the decision made may result in “monetary awards.” The Office of Compliance document reports that over the last 20 years, some $17 million have been paid.

The plot thickens. I got my hands on the original legislation, as was amended in 1998. Section 415 of the bill essentially says the money used to pay for these settlements must come from the U.S. Treasury.

In other words, every time a member of the U.S. Congress commits sexual misconduct and gets fined for it, taxpayers foot the bill.

As far as the $17 million goes, that doesn’t seem like much in the grand scheme of things. But taxpayers paid over 230 percent more in the fiscal year of 2017 to settle CAA sexual misconduct than they did for environmental trust funds.

It’s time for CAA reform. The whole system designed to keep congressional employees accountable fails the very people it is designed to protect, as well as putting an unfair burden on the taxpayers that the people on Capitol Hill are supposed to be working for.

Kaylie McLaughlin is a freshman in mass communications. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Collegian. Please send comments to [email protected]

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