The sexual harassment reckoning that has this year descended upon Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and the nation’s newsrooms has reached Capitol Hill, where stories about groping lawmakers and abusive senior staffers have simmered for decades. On Tuesday, a House committee held a hearing on a bill that would make sexual harassment training mandatory. Such training is currently voluntary and in the words of one committee member “under-utilized.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) confirmed late Thursday afternoon that the bill would become law. “Going forward, the House will adopt a policy of mandatory anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training for all Members and staff,” he said in a statement. “Our goal is not only to raise awareness, but also make abundantly clear that harassment in any form has no place in this institution.”
But Republicans and Democrats alike say this step is not enough, and are demanding reforms to Congress’ process for reporting sexual harassment and assault—a process lawmakers say is “broken,” “from the Dark Ages,” and discourages victims from coming forward.
At Tuesday’s hearing, two women lawmakers—Reps. Jackie Speier (D-CA) and Barbara Comstock (R-VA)—alleged that multiple male lawmakers currently serving in Congress stand accused of inappropriate sexual conduct, but neither named names.
Speier listed a host of accusations she has heard this year, including interns getting propositioned for sex and “victims having their private parts grabbed on the House floor.”
Comstock—herself a former congressional intern and staffer—described a story recently relayed to her from “somebody who I trust” about a young female staffer instructed to deliver documents to a male lawmaker’s house. Comstock said she doesn’t know who the lawmaker is, but said he is still in Congress today.
The lawmaker answered the door wearing only a towel, invited the staffer inside, and exposed himself to her. The staffer fled, and soon after quit her job. Comstock did not indicate when the alleged incident occurred, and did not reveal whether she heard the story directly from the victim or second-hand.
“What are we doing for women here right now who are dealing with something like that?” she demanded of her colleagues.
The answer, so far, is not much.
Last week, the Senate passed a resolution making yearly online sexual harassment training mandatory for every senator and his or her staff. The House may soon follow. But Speier and others testified Tuesday that a far more meaningful action would be reforming Capitol Hill’s process for reporting harassment, a process she said “may have been appropriate in the Dark Ages, but it is not appropriate for the 21st century.”
“Under the current process, congressional employees are at best unaware or confused, and at the worst, utterly betrayed,” she said, describing a system where the accused but not the accusers are given free legal counsel from Congress’ Office of Compliance, where accusers are required to sign non-disclosure agreements about the harassment, and where, in the mandatory mediation that follows, “survivors are often addressed in an aggressive manner.” Accusers are also barred from bringing in coworkers or other witnesses who could corroborate their stories.
This imbalance of power, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) noted, “may be acting as a deterrent to reporting.”
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) agreed that those who come forward need much more support than the current system offers. “Sexual harassment is about power, not just sex,” she said. “Our staffers need an advocate just as powerful working on their behalf.”
Comstock added that “we need to get people into the criminal justice system when there is a crime,” saying that a lawmaker exposing himself to a staffer would more than qualify.
Speier plans to introduce her own bill later this week, the ME TOO Congress Act, to reform the Hill’s complaint process so that more survivors feel empowered to come forward and more perpetrators are held accountable.
Alice Ollstein is a reporter at Talking Points Memo, covering national politics. She graduated from Oberlin College in 2010 and has been reporting in DC ever since, covering the Supreme Court, Congress and national elections for TV, radio, print, and online outlets. Her work has aired on Free Speech Radio News, All Things Considered, Channel News Asia, and Telesur, and her writing has been published by The Atlantic, La Opinión, and The Hill Rag. She was elected in 2016 as an at-large board member of the DC Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Alice grew up in Santa Monica, California and began working for local newspapers in her early teens.