Congress Has Its Own Sexual Harassment Problem 

Congress Has Its Own Sexual Harassment Problem 
Photo Illustration by Elena Scotti/Splinter/GMG, photos via Shutterstock :

Over the weekend, four female senators came forward with their own accounts of sexual harassment. Elizabeth Warren recounted that when she was a law professor, she was chased around a desk by a senior faculty member as he tried to put his hands on her. Claire McCaskill recalled that when she was a state legislator, she asked for advice on how to get legislation passed. She said the House speaker responded: “Did you bring your kneepads?”

Since the Weinstein story broke, men in politics have stood up to condemn the Hollywood executive. Senators like Chuck Schumer and Patrick Leahy announced that they would donate Weinstein’s campaign donations to women’s organizations. Joe Biden was recently applauded for vociferously stating that “it is long past time for the powerful men in Hollywood to speak up. To be strong enough to say something. Because silence is complicity.” (As Rebecca Traister pointed out in New York Magazine, Biden’s remarks failed to acknowledge his own complicity in Anita Hill’s testimony against Clarence Thomas, in which he led the all-white, all-male committee that worked to bully and shame her.)

But these men also need to look into their own backyard. In 2015, Vox reported that a progressive strategist “recalled moving to DC and having three different women give her lists of which members of Congress she should avoid being alone in a room with. The lists included members from both parties, and there were enough of them that all three lists had different names.” One woman in the piece said that experiencing inappropriate advances from powerful men in politics is “bipartisan and almost like a rite of passage in DC.”

Roll Call, which published an extensive piece on sexual harassment in Congress in February, found that “four in 10 of the women who responded to a CQ Roll Call survey of congressional staff in July said they believed sexual harassment is a problem on Capitol Hill, while one in six said they personally had been victimized.”

None of this is in any way surprising given that only 19 percent of those elected to Congress are women. According to Legistorm, 16,304 people work in the House and the Senate, with a large age difference between elected officials and staffers—in both the House and Senate, the average age of staffers is 31, while the average age of Senators and House members is 63 and 59, respectively.

But the scene of women on the Hill coming forward to tell their stories while men jump to condemn a toxic culture stands in sharp contrast against the fact that when it comes to reporting sexual harassment on Capitol Hill, the policies in place still remain highly outdated.

Originally, Congress had exempted itself from discrimination and workplace laws until 1995, when it passed the Congressional Accountability Act, sponsored by Republican Senator Chuck Grassley and signed into law by Bill Clinton. The accountability act ended those exemptions and installed the Office of Compliance, a non-partisan, independent agency. While private employees and those working for the federal government file complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, employees on the Hill refer to the Office of Compliance. But these changes are over 20 years old and it is clear that there is still a long way to go—in the Office of Compliance’s fiscal year 2016 report, there were only six requests from the House and two from the Senate for confidential counseling, the first step in a long process of asserting a claim.

The process for reporting harassment to the Office of Compliance works like this: Before employees can even file a complaint, they are required to go through 30 days of counseling (which they may seek to reduce), then 30 days of mediation, and then there is a 30 day “cooling off” period. The Office of Compliance outlines the following reason for its unique process in its report:

The OOC’s unique dispute resolution program allows employees and employers to first work together under the guidance of our skilled mediators in an effort to reach agreeable settlement terms.

Read another way, the process also serves to keep disputes internal for a certain period of time, working in the favor of elected officials.

Counseling and mediation are also both confidential procedures, so the victim can’t tell other women in their office that they are pursuing a complaint. In comparison, when it comes to most other federal offices, mediation and counseling are neither confidential nor required.

“A lot of times, as in the Weinstein affair, if it gets out that one person has done it, another person will come forward and another,” Alexis Ronickher, an employment lawyer who has worked with numerous clients on the Hill said. “Built-in confidentiality is going to stop that.” (In an email, Paula Sumberg, Deputy Executive Director of the Office of Compliance told Splinter that “the confidentiality provisions protect the parties equally. Employees are able to contact our office at any time to pursue a complaint of sexual harassment.”)

Most other federal offices also require sexual harassment training, while Congress does not, something that Representative Jackie Speier has long pushed for. In a statement to Splinter, Speier wrote, “It’s unacceptable that it’s 2017 and Congress still does not require sexual harassment training for members and staff. We expect our schools, universities, military, and businesses to uphold basic standards to prevent sexual harassment and violence, and yet we in Congress are not willing to hold ourselves to the same standard. Congress should join the 21st century and require itself to address these injustices, rather than sweeping them under the rug as is the current practice.”

Sumberg told Splinter that the Office of Compliance has “long recommended mandatory training on employment discrimination as a work requirement. I think securing that training for all staffers would be beneficial.”

While sexual harassment occurs wherever there are men with a modicum of power (i.e., everywhere), politics offers up its own unique challenges. Working as a staffer requires spending a lot of time at out-of-office events—dinners, fundraisers, receptions—and if the system keeps you stuck working for a known harasser, avoiding informal or one-on-one situations can impede someone’s ability to do their job well, not to mention move up in the workplace. In 2015, National Journal reported on a parallel problem in which several female aides said that they were barred from being alone with their male bosses for fear of “impropriety.” And then there is the fact that speaking up against an elected official could have repercussions beyond that single individual, potentially damaging a cause or even the party that a victim supports.

Of course, this isn’t limited to Congress. Last week, 140 women who work in the California statehouse signed a letter denouncing sexual misconduct in their workplace, stating that “men have groped and touched us without our consent, made inappropriate comments about our bodies and our abilities.” Carolyn Fiddler, a 37-year-old political editor at DailyKos, tweeted a #MeToo thread about a case of sexual harassment perpetrated by a much older male elected official while she was in law school and interning for the Virginia statehouse.

“I didn’t tell a soul. I knew how it worked. Word gets out, and +I’m+ the one who faces consequences, not him,” reads one of the tweets. When I asked Fiddler if fears of negatively impacting her party also kept her from speaking out at the time, she told me that it was part of her calculus: “I didn’t want the regrettable actions of one person to impact everyone else who did great work.” In her time in politics, she told me, “I’ve been in positions where it’s OK for one of my male colleagues to be in with the boss with the door closed and I couldn’t do it and that impacted the kind of conversations I could have with him.”

Updating Congress’ sexual harassment policies is just a start toward tackling much larger issue of power imbalance and the toxic culture that is prevalent at all levels of politics. But Capitol Hill doesn’t even have the basics covered—according to the Roll Call survey, only 10 percent of the women who responded said that “there was a structure in place for reporting allegations of harassment on Capitol Hill,” which suggested “either that they aren’t aware of the Office of Compliance or that they find it inadequate.”

“I don’t think the policies are out of date, they’re exactly how Congress intended them to be,” Ronickher said. “Which is to provide more protection and create more hurdles for staffers than other folks have.”

As Jia Tolentino wrote recently in The New Yorker, “The exploitation of power does not stop once we consolidate the narrative of exploitation. A genuine challenge to the hierarchy of power will have to come from those who have it.” As male senators espouse about complicity and return Weinstein’s money, they should also look into what’s happening in their own workplace.

Correction, October 26, 10:15 AM: This story has been updated to accurately reflect the timeline and procedure for reporting a harassment claim to the OOC.

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