‘Congress Too’ calls for change on Capitol Hill
When Congress Too launched in November, inspired by the viral Me Too movement, it took off quicker than its founders could have imagined.
Travis Moore and Kristin Nicholson, co-founders of the group and former Capitol Hill staffers, assumed they would get maybe 300 signatures on a letter to Congress calling for sweeping reforms to the way sexual harassment and abuse is handled in legislative offices.
More than 1,500 people — all former Capitol Hill staffers — signed the letter.
“The response was universal and emphatic,” Moore said. “It’s an open secret that harassment and abuse are just part of the job on Capitol Hill. That response really speaks to the pervasiveness of the problem.”
“I was pretty surprised by the overwhelming interest and support from former staffers,” Nicholson said.
“People who signed that worked back in the 1960s and we’re still talking about this as a problem.”
The letter, along with one signed by all 22 female Senators, resulted in a few quick changes.
On Nov. 9, the Senate agreed to require all senators, staff members and interns to take mandatory sexual harassment and assault training within 60 days. Training must be repeated at least once every two years, and all Senate offices are required to post publicly via the Secretary of the Senate website when their members have undergone training.
On Dec. 19, the House passed a resolution requiring the Committee on House Administration to issue regulations mandating members, officers and employees of the House complete anti-discrimination and anti-harassment training during each congressional session. Training must be certified within 90 days after a congressional session begins.
House offices must prominently post a statement of rights and protections under the Congressional Accountability Act.
The House passed reform legislation for the Congressional Accountability Act in February. The legislation, which is more comprehensive and binding than a resolution, which only affects one legislative branch, has several key components, like barring sexual relationships between employees and establishing a process for filing complaints.
That bill has been sitting in the Senate ever since, waiting for action. Moore and Nicholson expect the Senate to make changes, because that’s how these things work, and they had hoped it would be grouped in with the omnibus spending bill, but it was not.
So they wrote another letter, this time garnering more than 1,300 signatures, in part due to renewed attention to the group after Anna Kain, a founding member of Congress Too, went public with her story of the abuse she endured at the hands of Rep. Elizabeth Esty’s former Chief of Staff Tony Baker.
“She’s been a great active participant in the work we’ve been doing,” Nicholson said. “When we saw her story come out, that was an inspiration to keep doing the work that we’re doing and see what we can do to push these reforms along.”
“(The second letter) was a combination of the Senate not acting and then Anna telling us her story,” Moore said. “We were horrified by it. It speaks to how much is wrong with the current system. We said we should do another letter ... and another 1,300 staffers have signed on. It’s to try and keep the momentum so that this doesn’t just get forgotten as Congress is apt to do on these things.”
‘Mission above all’
But the changes they’re urging in legislative offices aren’t just about providing a process for recourse in cases of abuse, Moore said.
Ultimately, Congress Too is about changing a deeply ingrained culture that allows the abuse to happen in the first place.
“When people sign up to work on the Hill, they fight tooth and nail to get jobs in Congress because they believe deeply in the work,” Moore said. “They are extremely passionate and staffers sacrifice their personal life in pursuit of the mission, with great loyalty to the member and the mission. That is a huge part of the challenge here. Staffers feel obligated in many cases to put mission above all else.”
As a result, staffers like Kain don’t come forward until long after the abuse has occurred, and even while it’s occurring, they don’t know where to turn or what the process is for addressing the issue.
“That’s really tough and it’s why coming forward can be so challenging because if you’ve got a colleague or you’re working for a member that has done inappropriate things and you come publicly to talk about that, it’s hard not to feel like you might be undercutting the mission,” Moore said. “It’s an extraordinarily difficult and complex challenge. And it’s very much why more people I think have not come forward ... as a staffer, you’re told to not ever talk to the press. Fullstop. That so many people are willing to go on the record and say that the system is broken, speaks to the gravity of this issue.”