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