Joe Lieberman: The end of lawmaker entitlement — and their hush fund

Joe Lieberman: The end of lawmaker entitlement — and their hush fund

Nearly 30 years ago, just after I was first sworn in as a senator, I made my way down to the basement of the Russell Senate Office Building for a haircut.

To my astonishment, the Senate barber charged me only $3 — a substantial discount from what I’d customarily paid in Connecticut. Taxpayers, I immediately realized, were subsidizing the Senate barber. 

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This is just one of the many little perks offered to elected officials. Whether it was a subsidized haircut or car wash, these perks rarely amounted to much. But they suggested a certain sense of entitlement that the American public doesn’t abide in its leaders anymore. Public service is not a license for pampering.

 

Over the years, these benefits have largely been eliminated. Unfortunately, the recent revelations of sexual harassment on Capitol Hill — and the $17 million in taxpayer funds that were used to settle both claims of harassment and various types of bias — suggests that some elected officials believe they needn’t play by the same rules as everyone else. They’ve taken the sense of entitlement suggested by those bargain haircuts to a new low level. It needs to end.

As the recent revelations have made clear, certain members have chosen to use Congress much in the way that Hollywood once used the casting couch. That’s disgusting. If Washington is going to re-establish trust with the American people, the governing class needs to begin by rooting out this bad behavior and creating new rules to ensure it never happens again.

As someone who served in Congress for 24 years and cares about the credibility of the legislative branch of our government, the most unsettling element of this story, beyond the behavior itself, is the idea that taxpayer dollars would be used to cover an explicitly personal expense. You wouldn’t expect a public school district to cover the costs if a teacher got into a fender bender. The U.S. Constitution does not include propositioning, demeaning or harassing women as part of the legislative branch’s rights and responsibilities. So why should the U.S. Treasury cover the costs of a public official’s bad personal acts?

Every year Washington engages in the tough process of deciding which federal programs deserve additional funding, and which must be scaled back or ended. Taxpayers have a right to expect that their taxes will be spent wisely. To think that we’re paring back on health care, education or defense because millions of dollars are being spent to insulate members from sexual harassment allegations and lawsuits — it’s unconscionable.

It is true that private sector companies settle lawsuits all the time — and they frequently do so in secret. The company’s bottom line, a board of directors will argue, is better served with a quiet payout of the company’s private funds. But in the case of members of Congress, settlements aren’t paid out of a private fund — they’re being paid out of the public till. Taxpayers were never told their money was being spent this way. There’s no place for the government to pay hush money for a privileged set of federal employees.

Imagine anyone arguing that the taxpayers you serve should cover the costs for your own misbehavior. Who could be so audacious? If citizens were offended by the subsidized haircuts and car washes of years past, why would they agree to pay hush money for members of Congress? The arrogance is breathtaking.

Americans have always had a healthy skepticism of those who aspire to public office. But if you wonder why Congress’ approval ratings are so low today, look no further than this latest scandal. Yet in the 24 years I spent in the Senate, I found the vast majority of my colleagues on Capitol Hill to be dedicated public servants intent on doing right by their state, district and country. That still describes most of the people there today. The bevy of harassers who have availed themselves of this secret trust fund have given the American people cause to suspect that everyone in Washington is rotten. If we want to restore public confidence in government, things need to change.

Congress can take a few quick steps. Both houses should immediately release the names of every elected official who has taken advantage of this slush fund. Second, Congress should eliminate the fund altogether, requiring any elected official who abuses or harasses an employee to pay for their own legal representation and settlements. And, though this probably shouldn’t be necessary, all elected officials should have to undergo rigorous sexual harassment training.

This would be a good start. Current and aspiring members of Congress need to change Capitol Hill’s culture — one office at a time — to ensure there is zero tolerance for sexual misbehavior. Leaders must lead, not just to rectify the mistakes of the past and restore the public trust, but to ensure this shameful behavior is eliminated once and for all from the halls of our government.

Joe Lieberman, a former U.S. senator from Connecticut, is a national co-chairman of No Labels, a political organization composed of Republicans, Democrats, and independents, whose mission is to combat partisan dysfunction in politics.