Congressional Ethics committees are the wrong place to settle harassment and discrimination claims
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The U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate both have passed legislation to address the way sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination are handled in Congress and in the broader federal legislative workforce. This long overdue reform effort comes on the heels of multiple stories of congressional staffers who have experienced inappropriate conduct, harassment, abuse, humiliation and discrimination at the hands of members of Congress.

Many years ago, I was one of those congressional staffers. Like thousands of others, I came to Capitol Hill deeply grateful for the opportunity to help improve the lives of my fellow Americans and hopeful that I could make a difference. I loved my job and am proud of the contributions I made, but the misconduct I experienced and witnessed working for now retired U.S. Rep. John ConyersJohn James ConyersHouse to hold first hearing on slavery reparations in over a decade House to hold first hearing on slavery reparations in over a decade Reparations: The 'lost cause' of black politics? MORE (D-Mich.) is something no employee should face. 


One of the most difficult aspects of what I went through was the near total absence of any avenue for redress. Unfortunately, my experience wasn’t unique; an untold number of congressional staffers, both in Washington and in home districts, have faced similar and much worse forms of harassment and discrimination. Twenty years later, despite #MeTooCongress, the situation remains largely the same.

Now it appears Congress is poised to enact legislation to effect real change. While both chambers have passed reform measures, the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 Reform Act (H.R. 4924) is vastly superior to its Senate counterpart (S. 2952). A particular strength of the House bill is that it requires members of Congress to reimburse the U.S. Treasury for any monetary settlement or award stemming from harassment or discrimination – even if they retire or are voted out of office. This incredibly important provision will ensure that taxpayers no longer bear the financial costs of members’ misconduct.

The Senate bill has two major problems. First, it covers only harassment; discrimination is excluded entirely even though harassment is a subset of discrimination. Second, the proposal requires the Senate and House ethics committees to review settlement documents and conduct investigations. Only if the committee finds that the member directly perpetrated an actual violation will the lawmaker be required to foot the bill for their misconduct.

Allowing the ethics committees to review settlements and determine their legitimacy is a recipe for disaster. As I know from filing any number of ethics complaints during the course of my 12 years as the head of a government watchdog group, the ethics committees are loath to hold members accountable even for the most serious misdeeds. More than a decade ago, when the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal rocked Washington, implicating members in both chambers, the committees failed to hold a single member accountable. Little has changed since then.

Moreover, the congressional ethics committees have no expertise or experience whatsoever in employment matters. Placing these investigations within the jurisdiction of the ethics committees suggests that the Senate wants to ensure that no member is ever held accountable for misconduct. That is not real accountability.

As lawmakers debate the merits of each bill, we should insist on real reform and urge members to reject the deeply flawed Senate provisions. Those who seek to serve their country by working for Congress deserve nothing less.

Melanie Sloan is senior advisor at American Oversight.