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OpinionEditorial

We deserve accountability and transparency from Congress on sexual harassment

The accusations of sexual harassment in Congress are particularly distressing because there has been a clear effort to keep victims quiet at taxpayer expense.

The U.S. Capitol dome is reflected before sunrise

The U.S. Capitol dome is reflected before sunrise in Washington, D.C., on Friday, Oct. 20, 2017. Photo Credit: Bloomberg News / Andrew Harrer

Not under our roof.

The accusations of sexual harassment percolating under the Capitol dome are particularly distressing, not just because they’re being leveled against officials elected by Americans to represent us, but because there has been an effort to keep victims quiet and avoid accountability — all at taxpayer expense.

What’s worse, too many politicians are quick to defend those who are accused on their side of the aisle, while decrying those on the other. In the most egregious example, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called Rep. John Conyers, a fellow Democrat, an “icon” on Sunday and left his future up to him, while blasting Republican U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama. But by Tuesday, Conyers seemed headed toward making the right decision: to resign.

Pelosi has tried to backtrack from her defense of Conyers. But her comments shed light on a larger issue: The process for addressing sexual harassment claims in Congress is hidden from the public eye, and settlements are kept secret from the taxpayers who pay for them.

Stop making excuses. Stop the cover-ups. And stop punishing taxpayers for this awful behavior.

Take Conyers, the Michigan representative who in 2015 settled a complaint by a former staff member who alleged that he asked for sexual favors and fired her when she refused. The woman received $27,000 in exchange for her silence. Conyers has denied wrongdoing. But the Congressional Office of Compliance said $17 million for 264 settlements and other awards has been paid to federal employees since 1997. That’s all public money.

Those totals aren’t just for sexual harassment claims, nor are they just for the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives. We don’t know more because details of all cases are secret. But we know there’s a problem. Female lawmakers and staffers keep a word-of-mouth “creep list” to know whom to avoid. And when Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, testified to being forcibly kissed by a senior staff member when she was an aide, plenty of other women began sharing their stories with her.

Proposed legislation would require sexual harassment claims to be handled in public. That’s a good step. Past claims, too, should be made public, as long as a victim can choose to maintain privacy. But victims who want to speak up should have that chance. No one we elect should be exempt from facing public repercussions for creating a hostile work environment, or be able to spend taxpayer funds to save himself or herself.

Sen. Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat, faces a Senate ethics investigation and Moore would, too, if he is elected in two weeks. The details of those investigations should be made public and the consequences commensurate with the findings.

Congress has to rethink its own workplace. What does an intern or aide do if harassed by someone in power, or if her job is threatened? Employees who experience harassment need a path that empowers victims, doesn’t force them to hide and stops covering up bad behavior.

We must know exactly what’s going on under our roof. The veil must come off. — The editorial board

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