‘Congress Too’ calls for change on Capi­tol Hill

The Register Citizen (Torrington, CT) - - FRONT PAGE - By Kait­lyn Kras­selt

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.

Manda­tory training

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.”

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