Lawmakers describe pervasive sexual harassment on Capitol Hill
By Cristina Marcos
Efforts to combat sexual harassment on Capitol Hill gained momentum on Tuesday as female lawmakers shared stories of male colleagues engaging in predatory behavior.
Lawmakers in both parties had already expressed support for mandatory sexual harassment awareness training, which is currently voluntary for legislative branch staffers. But they went further in a House Administration Committee hearing on Capitol Hill’s harassment policies and said even more can be done in a male-dominated workplace where sexual harassment can be pervasive.
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), in testimony before the panel, said at least two current members of Congress have engaged in sexual harassment.
“In fact, there are two members of Congress, Republican and Democrat, right now, who serve, who have been subject to review or not have been subject to review, but have engaged in sexual harassment,” said Speier, who declined to name the male lawmakers.
Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) offered another example. She shared a story of a male lawmaker — still in Congress — who asked a young female staffer to bring materials to his residence. He opened the door dressed in only a towel, invited her inside and proceeded to expose himself.
The staffer subsequently quit her job.
“That kind of situation, what are we doing here for women right now who are dealing with somebody like that?” Comstock asked.
Speier had previously shared her own experience of having a chief of staff forcibly kiss her when she was working as a congressional staffer in the 1970s.
Since then, Speier said she’s received a multitude of calls to her office from people sharing their own stories of sexual harassment on Capitol Hill.
Those stories ranged from comments asking “Are you going to be a good girl?” to harassers exposing their genitals and grabbing private parts on the House floor.
Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.), a member of the House Democratic leadership, told The Associated Press earlier this month that a male colleague had ogled her and touched her inappropriately on the House floor when she first began serving in Congress.
Sánchez declined to name the lawmaker when asked about the incident on Tuesday. She never filed an official complaint, but learned to avoid being near him.
Since then, Sánchez told reporters, she’s advised newer members to do the same.
“When you are new to a workplace, you don’t always understand what the policies and procedures are, or what the avenues for reporting those kinds of incidences are,” Sánchez said.
“Now I know you can file an ethics complaint,” she added. “Now, of course, through hindsight, we can look at the Harvey Weinstein [case], and you see hundreds of women who have very similar … stories. You can see a pattern; when it’s happening to you, you don’t have the benefit of the 30,000 foot view.”
None of the three female lawmakers accused any of their colleagues by name of sexual harassment. Comstock said she heard the story secondhand and did not know the lawmaker’s identity, only that he is still a member of Congress.
Yet she acknowledged it’s hard to hold harassers accountable to their constituents if no one will name them publicly.
“That’s up to the victim, is the problem,” Comstock said after the House Administration Committee hearing, suggesting that women often don’t feel comfortable coming forward until they feel like there’s comfort in numbers. “There’s that blaming that women do. There’s ‘did I ask for it?’ ”
Speier plans to introduce legislation this week to overhaul the process available for staff to file harassment complaints.
Under the current system run through the Office of Compliance, staffers must go through months of mediation and counseling with the employing office before they can file a formal complaint. They must also sign nondisclosure agreements.
If staffers do go forward with a complaint, they can either file it in court or seek an administrative hearing that leads to negotiations for a settlement.
Such settlements are paid out by a fund operated by the Treasury Department.
Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.), who practiced employment law for three decades before serving in the House, said in testimony before the panel that lawmakers should establish a uniform, streamlined process for sexual harassment training and overhaul the complaint process.
Optional sexual harassment training is available to lawmakers and staff through the Office of Compliance, Office of House Employment Counsel and House Chief Administrative Officer.
Byrne also called for requiring members accused of harassment to reimburse the Treasury for settlement payments and strictly prohibiting them from pursuing sexual relationships with staffers.
The Senate passed a resolution last week to require sexual harassment training for members and staff. The House is expected to follow suit, possibly with legislation introduced by Speier earlier this month.
House Administration Committee Chairman Gregg Harper (R-Miss.) aligned himself with lawmakers calling for reforms.
“There is no place for sexual harassment in our society, period — and especially in Congress,” Harper said.
Female lawmakers have been leading the charge in forcing Congress to reckon with sexual harassment, both by sharing stories and introducing legislation.
But Comstock said it’s critical for male members to take part in the conversation.
“It is uncomfortable for women to talk about. I still feel kind of uncomfortable to talk about it,” Comstock said.
“So it’s important that the men talk about it too, because then it’s not just the women saying something and making men feel uncomfortable. But the men say, ‘I have daughters. I have wives. I have stories and I can name names.’ Or tell colleagues to knock it off who are doing it.”
Mike Lillis contributed to this story.