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Pressure builds for Congress to tackle sexual harassment on Capitol Hill

New legislation would overhaul complaint process
Posted: 11:29 AM, Nov 15, 2017
Updated: 2017-11-15 23:11:54Z

The growing list of sexual harassment allegations against well-known powerful men has Congress taking steps to protect against misconduct in its own offices.

Both the House and Senate have now agreed to require anti-harassment training for lawmakers and staff. That’s in addition to legislation just introduced that aims to provide more protections and resources for congressional staff members who file complaints.

"I think we're at a tipping point culturally in this country," said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif. "I want to make sure Congress turns over a new leaf."

The new effort to combat sexual abuse on Capitol Hill responds to staffers who say Congress has long been a breeding ground for misconduct.

Aides have reported being sexually harassed by at least two unnamed sitting members of Congress, according to Speier, who recently revealed she was sexually assaulted in the 1970s when she was a Capitol Hill staffer.

More than 1,500 former Capitol Hill staffers signed a petition this week urging the House and Senate to update decades-old sexual harassment policies they called “inadequate and in need of reform.”

Speier introduced a bill Wednesday that would dramatically overhaul procedures for how sexual harassment claims are handled at the Office of Compliance, which is responsible for carrying out the unique procedures lawmakers established in 1995 to resolve sexual misconduct claims.

Unlike most workplaces, employees in Congress who file harassment claims must first go through a months-long process. It includes up to 30 days of counseling, then a month of mediation where workers discuss their complaints with their employers, sometimes the same people accused of wrongdoing. Much of the system is blanketed in secrecy, with victims signing non-disclosure agreements and no reporting of which congressional offices eventually pay out settlements.

The Office of Compliance won’t even say how many sexual harassment complaints it receives. The most recent numbers from the office showed only eight claims filed relating to any workplace issue last year out of 15,000 House and Senate employees. Speier said it's a sign employees are not comfortable reporting sexual misconduct.

"It's really no wonder staffers don't use this system," Speier said.

Her bill would shorten how long employees must wait for resolution, allowing them to waive the requirement for counseling and mediation and go straight to court or to an administrative hearing at the Office of Compliance. It also would eliminate the requirement of a non-disclosure agreement up front and identify which lawmaker offices have complaints and settlements.

The legislation would set up a victims’ counsel office to represent people who file claims. Right now, lawmakers have their own in-house lawyers able to represent them with staffers left to find their own advocates.

Employees who file claims also would be allowed to work remotely, if requested, during the complaint process, rather than having to work in the offices where they allege wrongdoing occurred.

It also would require a report every two years looking at sexual harassment on Capitol Hill.

The protections would for the first time extend to interns, fellows and congressional pages.

Similar legislation is being introduced in the Senate. Republican leaders who control the fate of legislation have not yet commented on Speier’s bill.

House Administration Committee Chairman Gregg Harper, R-Miss., held a hearing Tuesday on sexual harassment in Congress. He called it a first step toward making sure staffers are protected from misconduct.

"We're talking thousands and thousands of staffers that are impacted by this, so we're going to do whatever we've got to do to make sure this doesn't happen," Harper said.

On Tuesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan announced that anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training would become mandatory for all House members and staff.

The Senate passed its own bill to require similar in-person training last week.