- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The House voted Wednesday to force its members and employees to take anti-harassment training, but all sides said there must be more bloodletting — including full disclosure of the secret ways lawmakers have used taxpayer money to hush up complaints of bad behavior.

Women and men recounted disgraceful instances that they had witnessed or been told of, including sexual assault on the House chamber floor, and vowed to put an end to it.

They said the vote — taken by voice, which likely saved some individual members from embarrassment — was an attempt to try to reclaim the high ground amid a searing national conversation.

“We have a moral duty to show real effective leadership to foster a climate of respect and dignity,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat and the highest-ranking woman in national office, who vowed Congress will now have a zero-tolerance policy. “Anything less is unacceptable.”

But the training requirement doesn’t answer many of the most pressing questions about harassment and other bad behavior by lawmakers, including the taxpayer money offices have paid to hide complaints.

The Washington Times reported this week that Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, Arizona Democrat, paid nearly $50,000 from his official House account to a female staffer who left after just three months on the job, complaining of his drunken behavior and a hostile workplace.

BuzzFeed reported this month on a $27,000 payment that Rep. John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat and the most senior member in Congress, paid to a female staffer who accused him of harassment.

The deals imposed a secrecy requirement, hiding them from public view, even though the money came out of taxpayer-funded accounts used to run their offices, known as members’ representational allowances or MRAs.

Watchdog group Common Cause said Wednesday that it’s time for that practice to end.

“We call on the office of Speaker Paul Ryan, the office of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and the Committee on House Administration to publicly disclose the names of members of Congress and congressional staff who have used their offices’ MRA or any other account to pay sexual harassment or misconduct settlements,” Common Cause President Karen Hobert Flynn said in a letter to House lawmakers.

The House Administration Committee, which has begun a series of hearings on the matter, said the payments will be part of their investigation.

It’s unclear how widespread the behavior is, partly because members are able to hide settlements inside their regular accounts.

The problems, though, have drawn blood in Congress, where lawmakers have long fended off claims that they hold others to standards they are unwilling to meet.

The accusations against Mr. Conyers cut particularly deeply, and Mrs. Pelosi this week stumbled over her handling of the situation. On Sunday, she seemed to play down the complaints against Mr. Conyers and defended him as a civil right icon.

But on Wednesday, while not naming him, Mrs. Pelosi put some serious distance between herself and the congressman.

“It is very hard to accept that people we admire in public life and here in Congress had crossed the line and broken the public trust,” Mrs. Pelosi said, but “zero tolerance means consequences for everyone.”

Mr. Conyers, who denies the accusations, is under intense pressure to resign. Lawmakers have already begun fighting over his leadership post as ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.

Democratic leaders found themselves answering tricky questions about why Mr. Conyers, who has gone back to his district to regroup, hasn’t been ousted from Congress. The leaders said they have to follow a process that includes a full Ethics Committee investigation to protect the congressman’s rights.

Mr. Grijalva, the ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, hasn’t faced the same kind of outrage over the accusations of fostering a hostile environment.

He told The Times last week that he agreed to the payout on the advice of the House Employment Counsel and stressed that the accusations against him didn’t involve sexual harassment.

Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat who for years has been pushing for better anti-harassment policies, said Congress will have to grapple with thorny decisions about how many incidents investigators have to substantiate before someone is ousted.

She and other lawmakers recounted stories of harassment and assault. One female staffer described an outrageous encounter in the House chamber.

“She was on this very floor — on this very floor — working later in the evening on a particular bill, a member came up behind her, grinded up against her and then stuck his tongue in her ear,” Ms. Speier said.

Ms. Speier also said the hush payments from taxpayers’ accounts have to stop.

“They do not want to pay for our inability to keep our hands to ourselves. They want accountability and transparency, and they want it now,” she said.

A number of methods for hushing up complaints have come to light in recent weeks.

Most of the attention has focused on the Office of Compliance, which over the past 20 years has paid out more than $17 million to settle more than 260 workplace complaints.

Rep. Gregg Harper, Mississippi Republican and chairman of the House Administration Committee, said the payouts cover claims including asbestos and anthrax complaints after the 2001 attack on the Capitol. He also said the $17 million covers payouts dealing with problems in the Capitol Police and grounds crew, so it’s not just lawmakers.

He said he is trying to get a full accounting of how much of the money went to cover lawmakers’ misdeeds.

“I think it would be fair to see what’s that breakdown,” Mr. Harper told reporters.

As chairman, he has to sign off on any payments by the Office of Compliance. In his 11 months on the job, he said, he has yet to have a single request — suggesting that the pace of payouts from the office is sporadic as well.

The Senate earlier this month approved its own policy of mandatory anti-harassment training.

The House’s new policy requires every member and staffer to undergo annual training to avoid harassment and discrimination and to understand victims’ rights.

S.A. Miller contributed to this report.

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