On sexual harassment, Congresswoman says Capitol Hill should look in the mirror

Calif. Rep releases her own #MeToo video
Posted at 11:12 AM, Oct 27, 2017

From the worlds of sports, business, entertainment and news, women across the country have been coming forward in the wake of allegations of sexual misconduct against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein to share their own experiences. But on Capitol Hill, the #MeToo campaign has been mostly quiet.

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-California, hopes to change that.

Friday morning she published her own blunt #MeToo video, calling it #MeTooCongress, sharing a story about sexual misconduct from her days as a congressional staffer for former Rep. Leo Ryan.

“The chief of staff held my face, kissed me and stuck his tongue in my mouth,” she said in the video posted online. “Congress has been a breeding ground for a hostile work environment for far too long.”

Speier’s video is step one of her plan to use the nation’s attention on sexual harassment right now to improve how Congress handles misconduct in its own offices.

It's rare for Capitol Hill staffers to speak out, even after a string of high-profile sex-related scandals led to the downfall of congressmen Mark Foley, Eric Massa and Mark Souder. One in six women who work on Capitol Hill reported being sexually harassed in an anonymous survey earlier this year by CQ Roll Call.

Congress’ Office of Compliance handles sexual harassment complaints. Numbers from the office show that of the 15,000 employees who work for lawmakers, there were only eight formal complaints in 2016 about any kind of workplace issue. The office would not disclose how many of those eight cases related to sexual harassment.

“There’s a real reluctance to file a complaint because you will be blackballed and your career will end,” Speier said in an interview with Scripps News just before she taped the #MeToo video.

Like Hollywood, Capitol Hill is a place where many of the risk factors for sexual harassment are baked into the job. There is the significant number of young employees, boozy dinners and receptions that are part of work and a wide power disparity. On one side, lawmakers and their top aides versus low level employees just beginning their careers in Washington.

"A lot of the job facilitates this kind of conduct," said Alexis Ronickher, who has represented Hill staffers in harassment complaints as an employment attorney at Katz, Marshall & Banks.

Ronickher calls Congress a "perfect petri dish" for sexual harassment, with few incentives for victims to report bad behavior. Capitol Hill is often compared to a small town, where everyone seems to know everyone else. Hill employees who report harassment risk becoming known as troublesome in a place where careers are grown by moving from office to office, Ronickher said.

And workers know that making a claim about a senator or House member or their senior staff is sure to make national news.

"Good luck finding another job on the Hill," Ronickher said. "I can tell you the clients I've had that have been most willing to go through the process have been ones who were not interested in remaining in politics."

The system for reporting misconduct in a congressional office differs from other workplaces, a process Speier says was designed by lawmakers to discourage victims from taking action.

“It’s an absolute embarrassment,” Speier said.

Employees in Congress are not allowed to go straight to court with their claims. Instead, they must first go through up to 30 days of counseling with the Office of Compliance,  that’s designed to resolve their disputes. If staffers want to keep pursuing their case, they must go through mediation with their employers, possibly the same people they’re accusing of harassment.

“Meanwhile, you’re still in this abusive environment,” Speier said.

The Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 lays out the procedures for filing workplace grievances at the Office of Compliance.

“We think people believe and have faith in this process,” said Susan Tsui Grundmann, the office’s executive director. She said her office never discourages employees from pursuing claims against employers in Congress, and defended the rule requiring staffers to go through counseling before moving forward with a complaint.

“The counseling period is important so that the employees learn what rights and protections they do have,” Grundmann said.

The system does not prevent workers from eventually going to court or to an administrative board for relief, Grundmann said.

“It gives them a forum, a setting, a confidential place to try and resolve their issues and if they can’t resolve it there will be a final decision that is issued,” she said. Employees also are able to call the office to confidentially discuss workplace concerns.

Speier said the process focuses too much on the interests of lawmakers, not victims. She plans to introduce legislation that would allow staffers to go straight to court with harassment complaints and to speed up the timeline for settling disputes at the Office of Compliance.

The office also provides quarterly e-newsletters, in-person classes and an online course about sexual harassment, but Congress does not require the kind sexual harassment prevention training that is standard in other workplaces, including for those who work in the executive branch. It’s voluntary on Capitol Hill. The Office of Compliance has recommended that Congress make the training mandatory.

Speier also has been pressing for required sexual harassment training for years and says she will soon try again to pass a rule to make it a requirement for all employees and their bosses, including members of Congress.

“I think it’s very important that we have education,” she said. “Education is power.”

Ronickher says like in the case of Weinstein, it will take many victims coming forward at the same time to force Congress to strengthen its fight against sexual harassment.

"People just move on is what they do," she said. "They look for another job, they move off the Hill, and they leave it as a bad memory.”