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Editorial: Congress' use of tax money to secretly pay off harassment victims is an outrage

It ought to be scandalous that Congress has been secretly paying victims of members’ sexual misconduct, but as anyone who lives in New York knows, it’s the way of politicians.

The same furtive practice was unmasked in Albany several years ago, driven by the same apparent sense of entitlement. The hubris of male legislators was such that they not only concealed their colleagues’ misbehavior from the public, but also the costs of secretly settling the ensuing complaints, using dollars provided by the same public.

That’s what Washington is doing. Over the past 20 years, it has paid out more than $17 million in 268 settlements of all kinds, not just sexual harassment. The money comes from a special fund in the Treasury Department, meaning American taxpayers are funding settlements against officials accused of harassment without ever knowing it. It’s an invitation to continued abuse – of victims and of taxpayers.

It gets worse. In the House, while payments must be approved by the chairman and ranking member of the House administration committee, Speaker Paul Ryan is not made aware of them. Imagine the president of a company remaining ignorant about payments made to settle complaints within his or her business. It adds up to an insidious arrangement, made to protect political careers at the expense of harassment victims – present and future – and the Americans who fund these secret settlements.

Its intolerable. Efforts are underway to illuminate those dark corners, but there is no telling how serious they are or if they will succeed. It will pay to be skeptical, though. Elected officials are not famous for wanting to make themselves more accountable.

The House last week did approve a bipartisan resolution mandating anti-harassment training for members and aides. That should have been the easy thing, but it happened only after Congress had come under significant pressure. The Senate has also approved similar training.

But what about changing the secretive way Congress settles complaints? That is likely to meet greater resistance but is even more urgent.

Consider: What is more likely to dissuade a member of Congress from sexually harassing staff members or others: a seminar on why people shouldn’t do bad things or the risk that their transgressions will be made public? Both are needed.

It is possible, of course, that publicizing settlements would deter some public officials from agreeing to them at all. That would create additional stress on their victims, even if their names were kept private. Nevertheless, the deterrence value and the absolute right of taxpayers to know whose bad behavior they are underwriting offer the greater chance to avoid that harassment in the first place.

This is only one of the ways that Congress protects its own. Although House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and three of her deputies belatedly called for Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., to resign over credible sexual harassment claims from his staff, the fact is that elected officials from President Trump down have been held to a lesser standard of accountability than offenders from the media and entertainment fields, including Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Louis C.K., Harvey Weinstein and others. It is important to distinguish among offenses – some violations are demonstrably more serious than others – but repercussions among elected officials have been minimal to nonexistent. Why should that be?

It’s fair to assume that this problem goes beyond politicians, media and entertainers and appears across the spectrum in places where people hold positions of authority and misuse their power to intimidate women whose careers they can damage. That may be changing, as more women are determined to speak out about intolerable conduct, but this is only the beginning.

A reckoning is underway. Around the country, it’s hard not to suspect that men who once thought themselves beyond retribution are nervously waiting for the past-due notice to arrive.

In the meantime, Congress needs to get right on this. Some in its halls are calling for greater transparency. How about just transparency?

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