A bill unveiled Thursday by U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik would require members of Congress to reimburse the Treasury Department for any sexual harassment settlements paid out on their behalf.
The legislation, the Responsible Settlements for Victims and Taxpayers Act, would also allow funds from the Congress member's federal retirement account to be used if they fail to repay the settlements within a 180-day period.
Stefanik, R-Willsboro, introduced the bill with U.S. Rep. Pete Olson, a Texas Republican. The measure aims to address the recent revelation that millions of taxpayer funds have been used to settle sexual harassment allegations against members of Congress.
"Taxpayers should not be forced to foot the bill for lawmakers' inappropriate behavior," Stefanik said. "This commonsense legislation addresses the recent and shocking reports of abuse by some on Capitol Hill, and it protects hard-earned taxpayer dollars."
The Office of Compliance, which oversees workplace rules for members of Congress and congressional staff, paid out more than $17 million over a 20-year period to settle complaints, including sexual harassment cases.
The House Administration Committee released information this week showing the Treasury paid $174,000 to settle sexual harassment claims against Congress.
While Olson and Stefanik believe victims should receive "just compensation," they also believe that the members of Congress, not taxpayers, should be required to pay the settlements.
"The notion that any claims of harassment have been settled at taxpayer expense is simply indefensible," Olson said.
He also explained why the provision allowing federal retirement account funds to be used to reimburse Treasury was added to the bill. He expressed concern that members of Congress could resign in an attempt to avoid any consequences, such as paying settlements.
If the bill is adopted, the funds from the federal retirement account could be taken to pay claims if the member of Congress leaves office.
"The wonderful staffers who come to Capitol Hill to serve the American people deserve a safe work environment," Olson said. "If that safety is breached, they deserve compensation from the person who harms them, not the American taxpayers."
This is the latest in a series of bill aimed at addressing sexual harassment in society.
Stefanik is supporting a bipartisan bill that would end forced arbitration in sexual harassment cases. The legislation seeks to eliminate the practice, which is often used to privately settle cases and keep those who filed the complaints quiet.
U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is pushing for changes to how Congress addresses sexual harassment complaints. One reform she is pursuing is improving the process by which employees can report sexual harassment to the Office of Compliance.