by Jim Smoger
News editor, Wheaton Gazette

One of the most troubling of the recent sexual harassment and misconduct allegations stories is how they have been hidden by Congress.

Since the passage of a law in 1995, complaints are handled confidentially. Lawyers for the House and the Senate have required that settlements be kept confidential as well. Some reports have indicated that as much as $17 million has been paid out over the last 21 years to settle claims.

The conditions are about to change. The New York Times reported on Sunday that in the U.S. House, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, led by Representative Jackie Speier, Democrat of California, and Representative Barbara Comstock, Republican of Virginia, is pushing for legislation that would require claims to be handled in public. In the Senate, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, has put forth similar legislation.

“It was a system set up in 1995 to protect the harasser,” Ms. Speier said on the ABC program “This Week,” adding, “We say zero tolerance, but I don’t believe that we put our money where our mouths are.”

A major question, however, is whether the Speier-Comstock legislation should apply retroactively, meaning that those who have paid past settlements would now be identified, according to the Times report. The current legislation would cover any settlement reached since the beginning of this year.

The Speier-Comstock proposal should be passed to end the secrecy. We also think citizens have a right to know those who have paid settlements in the past, especially if they are still serving in Congress. Voters in their respective districts have a right to know this information, and to ask questions. The names of victims do not need to be released, although any restrictions from the settlements preventing them from going public should be lifted.

The Speier-Comstock legislation will send a message that Congress is serious about cleaning up its act. We also think members with previous settlements on their records should no longer be able to hide behind a stack of money.