Brian Hamilton: We get the government we deserve | TheUnion.com

Brian Hamilton: We get the government we deserve

Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, Donald Trump largely got it right when referring to Washington D.C. as a "swamp."

The back-room deals, the lobbyists and the campaign cash that buy and sell our politicians has become so much "business as usual" that it's almost cliche and those who bring it up are often dismissed for being naive. We have solutions to solve our problems, but we lack the political will to make them a priority because our elected officials are more interested in retaining power for their party than simply doing the right thing.

And perhaps there is no more egregious example of what a mess we have on our hands than the revelation that congressional representatives have been settling sexual harassment cases on the taxpayer's dime.

That's right. They offend. They settle. We pay.

So who is they? Great question. Apparently, we're not allowed to know, despite their reported use of public funds to make amends for their alleged actions.

According to USA Today, the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act was designed to subject lawmakers in Congress to the same harassment and discrimination laws that other American employers must follow. But as is often the case, things don't always turn out as intended when it comes to our congressional representation. That law requires settlements be kept secret and allows lawmakers' offices to use taxpayer money to pay claims.

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To be clear, the Office of Compliance fund used in such cases wasn't created solely for sexual harassment settlements. And, as the Associated Press reported, it has paid out $17.2 million over the past 20 years to settle disputes, "not all of which have involved harassment complaints."

And not all such settlements are funded through the Office of Compliance. As Politico reported, a monetary settlement negotiated on behalf of a woman who accused Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), her former boss, of sexual misconduct came out of Conyers' office budget — which is also funded by taxpayers, but not recorded as part of that $17 million total.

But the fact that our elected officials believe their constituents should cover the cost of settling such cases, and then make those settlements confidential, is outrageous. If the public is paying for these settlements, then they should be made public — with the name of each representative, each allegation, each admission, each denial and the amount settled in each instance.

And if the 1995 law sought to treat lawmakers the same as any other American subject in terms of harassment and discrimination laws, then it has also fallen well short of its goal. According to a report by The Washington Post, "accusers may file lawsuits only if they first agree to go through months of counseling and mediation." The law gives victims 180 days after an incident to initiate complaints. After that, victims who want to continue begin 30 days of mediation, which is handled by a neutral mediator. If still unresolved, they can pursue an Office of Compliance administrative hearing or file a federal lawsuit against their harasser.

"The rule contrasts sharply with the rest of the federal government," the Post reports, "where mediation is an option but not mandatory for employees to pursue legal action."

So mediation is mandatory for the victim, but sexual harassment training isn't required for our representatives or their staff — though it's a standard practice in the private sector management.

"(The Office of Compliance) sends newsletters and regular emails urging chiefs of staff to prioritize staff training and describing how to access resources online," the Post reported. "While the office oversees tens of thousands of employees, only about 800 people since 2015 have taken its 20-minute online tutorial on preventing sexual harassment."

Apparently, though, our federal government officials are now starting to see how that might be beneficial. In late November, the House approved a bipartisan measure requiring annual anti-harassment training for lawmakers and aides.

Is that progress? I guess, but it sure seems more like a public relations' response to the revelations of how the intentions of that 1995 law have been twisted, much like many members we've sent to Washington to represent us.

And that's a big part of the problem.

Thanks to gerrymandered districts and campaign war chests, incumbents are almost untouchable even though they so often seem so out of touch.

Fifty years in congress might make one an "icon," but it also seems to also make one entitled. But without term limits on their tenure, it's up to the voters to change their representation in order to bring about the changes they want to see.

So, in the end, we do get the government we deserve.

And, like it or not, this is ours.

Contact Editor Brian Hamilton at bhamilton@theunion.com or 530-477-4249.

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