In November 2017, a meme circulating on social media reported that Congress has been using a “slush fund” to quietly pay out $17 million in settlements to women who had been sexually harassed or abused by lawmakers.
Although there is a U.S. Treasury fund devoted to paying settlements, it is not a “slush fund” which implies it is secret and utilized for illicit purposes. The fund is administered by the Office of Compliance (OOC), which was established in 1995 with the Congressional Accountability Act and is used for the payment of awards and settlements. The OOC is overseen by the House Administration and Senate Rules committees.
Unlike a “slush fund” which would be off the books, the fund is a line item and every year its activity can be viewed by the public in Treasury reports — for example money laid out from the fund in Fiscal Year 2016 can be viewed here under “Awards and Settlements, Office of Compliance.” In FY 2016 the fund paid out a total of $491,733.97.
Yearly breakdowns dating back to 1995 can be viewed here (click on the year desired then scroll to “Part Three Fiscal Year 2016 Detail of Appropriations, Outlays, and Balances,” then click on the report for the Legislative Branch).
Citing increased public interest in the issue of sexual harassment settlement funding sources, Office of Compliance Director Susan Tsui Grundmann released a compilation of money paid from the fund by year since 1997, totaling more than $17 million. But not all of that money went to congressional harassment cases, she pointed out. The money is used to settle workplace disputes on Capitol Hill and the amounts for various complaints are not broken out by type:
A large portion of cases originate from employing offices in the legislative branch other than the House of Representatives or the Senate, and involve various statutory provisions incorporated by the [Congressional Accountability Act], such as the overtime provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act. The statistics on payments are not further broken down into specific claims because settlements may involve cases that allege violations of more than one of the 13 statutes incorporated by the CAA.
In at least one of the high-profile cases, that of accusations of harassment leveled against Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan), settlement money was paid by his congressional office budget, not the Treasury fund overseen by OOC.
The meme is false — the money isn’t paid from an illegal “slush fund.” It’s unknown how much of the $17 million total over the last 20 years went to sexual harassment claim settlements. However, allegations of sexual abuse and harassment against powerful men like Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, Rep. Conyers and Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota), NBC News anchor Matt Lauer and in the days leading up to the 2016 presidential election, President Donald Trump, have raised awareness of how rampant the problem is and how secretive and bureaucratically-cumbersome the process is for handling complaints against legislators — at the expense of taxpayers.
This has prompted Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Callifornia) to draft legislation to make the OOC’s process more transparent and user-friendly for victims of harassment. (A spokesperson for Speier said the way the system currently works “is obviously created to protect the institution over the victims.”) As it stands, people seeking to file complaints of harassment on Capitol Hill have to wait a minimum of 90 days after filing their initial incident report with OOC, during which time they must receive mandatory counseling and mediation, then wait an additional 30 days in a “cooling off” period.
According to documents provided by Speier’s office, the bill (dubbed “Me Too” after a social media campaign in which women and some men shared their stories of assault and abuse) seeks to change the process and help prevent future harassment by making the mandatory counseling and mediation voluntary, giving OOC more investigative power, allowing victims to file complaints anonymously, giving them more time to do so and providing them a central platform they can use. It would also implement sexual harassment training and require any members of Congress who settle a claim to personally reimburse the Treasury fund. OOC would also be required to publish the name of the employing office and amount awarded in settlements.