Fe­male leg­is­la­tors re­count ha­rass­ment sto­ries at hear­ing

The Washington Post - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY MICHELLE YE HEE LEE michelle.lee@wash­post.com The Wash­ing­ton Post is ex­am­in­ing work­place vi­o­la­tions on Capi­tol Hill and the process for re­port­ing them. To con­tact a re­porter, please email michelle.lee@wash­post.com, elise.viebeck@wash­post.com or kim­berl

First came the flood of so­cial me­dia posts from for­mer and cur­rent con­gres­sional em­ploy­ees who said they were sex­u­ally ha­rassed on the job. Then came more than 1,500 names of for­mer con­gres­sional staffers urg­ing Congress to fix the prob­lem.

Now mem­bers of Congress are tak­ing the ex­tra­or­di­nary step of pub­licly ac­knowl­edg­ing that their col­leagues have en­gaged in lewd be­hav­ior, com­ing to terms with sex­ual ha­rass­ment as a per­va­sive prob­lem on Capi­tol Hill.

At a Tues­day hear­ing, law­mak­ers aired de­tails — with­out nam­ing names — about un­wanted sex­ual com­ments and ad­vances tak­ing place in their midst. The hear­ing had al­most im­me­di­ate im­pact, with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) an­nounc­ing a few hours later that the House will change its pol­icy to make anti-ha­rass­ment train­ing manda­tory for all mem­bers and staff.

The sto­ries told at the hear­ing were un­sub­stan­ti­ated but added to con­cerns about Congress as a hos­tile work en­vi­ron­ment, es­pe­cially for women.

“This is about a mem­ber who is here [in Congress] now. I don’t know who it is, but some­body who I trust told me this sit­u­a­tion,” Rep. Bar­bara Com­stock (R-Va.) said at the hear­ing on sex­ual ha­rass­ment.

The male law­maker tricked a young fe­male staffer into meet­ing him at his res­i­dence, Com­stock said. When the staffer ar­rived, he greeted her in a towel and ex­posed him­self, she said. The staffer left the house and sub­se­quently quit her Hill job, she said.

Ha­rassers have propo­si­tioned staff mem­bers by ask­ing: “Are you go­ing to be a good girl?” Some have ex­posed their gen­i­tals to vic­tims. Oth­ers have grabbed vic­tims by their pri­vate parts on the House floor, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) said.

“In fact, there are two mem­bers of Congress, Repub­li­can and Demo­crat, right now who serve who have not been sub­ject to re­view but have en­gaged in sex­ual ha­rass­ment,” said Speier, who has been push­ing for years to make anti-ha­rass­ment train­ing a re­quire­ment.

Speier said her of­fice has been “in­un­dated” with calls and meet­ings with for­mer and cur­rent staff mem­bers, fe­male and male, who have been sub­jected to in­ap­pro­pri­ate and pos­si­bly il­le­gal sex­ual ad­vances. The calls came af­ter Speier, who has pub­licly de­scribed be­ing forcibly kissed by a chief of staff when she was a con­gres­sional em­ployee, be­gan a #MeTooCongress cam­paign to draw at­ten­tion to sex­ual ha­rass­ment on the Hill.

“All they ask in re­turn as staff mem­bers is to be able to work in a hos­tile-free en­vi­ron­ment,” Speier said. “They want the sys­tem fixed and the per­pe­tra­tors held ac­count­able.”

Some fe­male aides have ex­pressed con­cern that con­gres­sional of­fices will sim­ply stop hir­ing women to pre­vent sex­ual ha­rass­ment, said Rep. Rod­ney Davis (R-Ill.). Glo­ria Lett, coun­sel for the Of­fice of House Em­ploy­ment Coun­sel and a wit­ness at the hear­ing, con­firmed that she also has heard such con­cerns. When she does, she re­minds them that gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion is il­le­gal, Lett said.

Ryan’s move to make train­ing manda­tory in the House fol­lowed Se­nate ac­tion last week to re­quire that mem­bers and their aides re­ceive anti-ha­rass­ment train­ing. If the House adopts the same re­quire­ment, it would mark the first ma­jor pol­icy change since 1995 to pre­vent sex­ual ha­rass­ment on the Hill.

Ryan’s of­fice has not yet pro­vided de­tails on what the new pol­icy will en­tail. While sev­eral bills have been in­tro­duced or are in the works to re­quire train­ing in the House, none has ad­vanced yet.

“Go­ing for­ward, the House will adopt a pol­icy of manda­tory anti-ha­rass­ment and anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion train­ing for all Mem­bers and staff. Our goal is not only to raise aware­ness, but also make abun­dantly clear that ha­rass­ment in any form has no place in this in­sti­tu­tion,” Ryan said in a state­ment.

Law­mak­ers in re­cent weeks have come un­der pres­sure to im­prove the work­place cul­ture on the Hill amid re­ports from mul­ti­ple news out­lets, in­clud­ing The Wash­ing­ton Post, of lewd com­ments, un­wanted sex­ual ad­vances and other ex­am­ples of sex­ual mis­con­duct that have plagued Congress for decades. More than 1,500 for­mer con­gres­sional em­ploy­ees have signed a let­ter urg­ing Congress to re­quire anti-ha­rass­ment train­ing and to over­haul the re­port­ing process, which ad­vo­cates say is stacked against the vic­tim and de­signed to pro­tect the in­sti­tu­tion.

Un­like most of the pri­vate sec­tor and the ex­ec­u­tive branch, the leg­isla­tive branch does not re­quire anti-ha­rass­ment train­ing. Those who choose to re­port al­le­ga­tions face a com­pli­cated process that in­volves up to 30 days of a coun­sel­ing pe­riod dur­ing which they are ed­u­cated on their rights and op­tions. Ac­cusers then face a manda­tory me­di­a­tion process be­fore they can bring a case in an ad­min­is­tra­tive hear­ing or in fed­eral court.

Last week, the Se­nate for the first time in its his­tory man­dated mem­bers and their aides to re­ceive anti-ha­rass­ment train­ing. The Of­fice of Com­pli­ance and the Of­fice of House Em­ploy­ment Coun­sel pro­vide train­ing upon re­quest.

“It’s ap­par­ent that manda­tory train­ing is a nec­es­sary first step to im­prov­ing the House’s process to ad­dress sex­ual ha­rass­ment in the work­place,” said Rep. Gregg Harper (R-Miss.), chair­man of the House Ad­min­is­tra­tion Com­mit­tee.

Em­ploy­ment me­di­a­tion claims han­dled by the Of­fice of House Em­ploy­ment Coun­sel “over­whelm­ingly” in­volve only staff mem­bers and “very rarely” are be­tween a staffer and a mem­ber of Congress, Lett said.

Bar­bara Childs Wal­lace, chair­woman of the Of­fice of Com­pli­ance’s board of di­rec­tors, said con­gres­sional em­ploy­ees gen­er­ally are not aware of their rights, whether they should re­port sex­ual-ha­rass­ment claims or even that the of­fice ex­ists. She said that manda­tory train­ing is a nec­es­sary first step in im­prov­ing the Hill’s work­place cul­ture but that more needs to be done.

By law, the Of­fice of Com­pli­ance cre­ates posters that out­line em­ployee rights, yet few of­fices ac­tu­ally dis­play the posters in their Wash­ing­ton or district of­fices, ac­cord­ing to Childs Wal­lace.

More­over, in­di­vid­ual con­gres­sional of­fices and their lead­ers need to set an ex­am­ple of ap­pro­pri­ate be­hav­ior, she said.

“Lead­er­ship within each of­fice is also im­por­tant, and let­ting the em­ploy­ees know where they can go to com­plain is vi­tally im­por­tant. But manda­tory train­ing is one very im­por­tant com­po­nent of try­ing to stop this,” Childs Wal­lace said.

Harper said the com­mit­tee will re­view other rec­om­men­da­tions made dur­ing the hear­ing to de­ter­mine what re­sources should be made avail­able or what changes made.

“This type of be­hav­ior can­not be tol­er­ated. I be­lieve that rais­ing the aware­ness today, we should set the stan­dard of proper con­duct in the work­place, and I hope this is the first step to get­ting there,” Harper said.

NI­CHOLAS KAMM/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) said at a Tues­day hear­ing that Hill staffers have been sub­jected to grop­ing on the House floor.

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