Access to information about our legal system is the bedrock of our society. Awareness of the inalienable rights and privileges that undergird our Constitution is not only empowering to individuals, but it is also critical to holding our public officials accountable to the people they lead. As John Adams said, we are a government of “laws, not men,” and as such, those in the political arena must be personally and professionally accountable to the public and execute their official duties with integrity. This is particularly important when it comes to instances of misconduct or malfeasance by our elected representatives.
What transpires behind closed doors in Congressional offices should not be shrouded in secrecy. The public has a right to know when their elected officials run afoul of their ethical obligations. UniCourt is proud to be a part of a cultural movement to promote open access to information on Congressional misconduct, seeking to make government records public records.
Transparency in Government Records of Congressional Transgressions
The Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 (CAA) is a law intended to hold Congress to the same standards of workplace health, safety, and integrity as private companies. However, the CAA revealed serious problems in both its spirit and its practical application. The CAA established an agency called the Office of Compliance, which adjudicated various workplace complaints involving members of Congress. The proceedings stemming from these complaints – including instances of sexual harassment and assault – were closed and confidential, unless the investigations that made it to court were resolved in the claimant’s favor. Further, the law directed the Treasury Department to allocate taxpayer funds to defray the cost of settlements and awards resulting from proceedings involving malfeasance by Congress members.
A new bill known as the CAA Reform Act seeks to change this, aiming to demand accountability among members of Congress through transparency about sexual misconduct. The House and Senate have each passed a separate version of the bill, with common goals to strengthen protections against workplace harassment. Both bills increase transparency about past instances of sexual misconduct among Congress members in the following ways:
- Both bills seek to replace the Office of Compliance with a new Office of Congressional Workplace Rights, which will publish an online report every six months with information on awards and settlements including: the employing office, the amount of money paid, the violations that are being claimed, and whether the member had reimbursed the Treasury account for settlements and awards.
- Both bills enhance the rights of claimants during pending procedures by protecting them against retaliation and allowing them to take a paid leave of absence if they are unable to carry out their official duties.
- Both extend protection from employment discrimination to unpaid staffers and other Congressional employees.
While these represent tremendous strides of progress for workplace rights and protection of victims of sexual harassment, both bills lack additional protections that will enhance transparency and openness of information to the public. For instance, neither bill includes a provision requiring Congress to publicly disclose the identity of elected officials who perpetrated acts of sexual misconduct. Various advocacy groups are pushing to have this addressed in a conference committee on the bills, arguing that the public has a right to know if their elected officials have engaged in acts of assault or harassment and seeking to adopt the heightened protections that the House bill proposes.
The voting public has a right to know about acts of sexual assault and harassment perpetrated by members of Congress, regardless of their political affiliation or policy positions. The transparency both bills promote function like a public background check, or rather, an accountability check for our political leaders. Keeping acts of malfeasance, harassment, assault, and abuse private matters will only ensure that they continue. Conversely, making records public will expose them for what they are: treacherous acts eroding away the integrity of our political system.
Financial Accountability Implications of the CAA Reform Act
The CAA Reform Act promotes more than just transparency in Congressional conduct. It also encourages financial accountability in our public officials – a crucial way to enhance the integrity of our political system as a whole. Like all U.S. citizens, members of Congress must face the consequences of their actions. The proposed reforms – particularly the stronger reforms contained in the House bill – will spare taxpayers the responsibility for funding acts of malfeasance.
While the House and Senate bills differ slightly on the reimbursement requirements for awards and settlements, both depart from the existing model, where taxpayer dollars fund these settlements in full. The House bill holds members personally responsible for any sexual harassment award or settlement, requiring members to reimburse the Treasury account for awards or settlements within 90 days. It also ensures that members who leave office will remain responsible for repaying the Treasury in full for these damages. The Senate bill, however, only requires members to reimburse the Treasury for the compensatory damages portion of an award. Nonetheless, the financial accountability both bills promote is critical. It challenges the culture of condoning or turning a blind eye to misconduct by making elected government officials responsible for their own actions.
Next Hurdles for the CAA Reform Act
Various advocacy groups are fighting to send the CAA reforms to conference committee in order to sort out the differences between the House and Senate versions of the bills, to adopt the heightened protections contained in the House bill, and to ultimately have the bill swiftly passed into law. In particular, organizations like the ACLU, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and Equal Pay Today have expressed concern about the Senate version of the bill, which they believe falls short of securing the protections needed for claimants while promoting transparency and accountability among members of Congress.
The CAA Reform Act, and especially the stronger proposals contained in the House bill, challenges existing norms about sexual assault and harassment that occurs behind closed doors. In the face of the growing ME TOO Congress Act of 2017 and the accompanying cultural movement, these reforms seek to dispel the aura of secrecy surrounding sexual offenses, particularly when they occur in public offices. The reforms proposed by both bills will not only shed light on these offenses, holding our officials to a higher standard of integrity, but will also keep our elected officials financially and morally accountable to the people they represent.
UniCourt continues to support the call for transparency in government records and defending the public’s right to know. Our mission is to promote access to information in a way that is empowering to individuals and ensures that our legal system operates with transparency and integrity.