House panel reviewing sexual harassment policies

House panel reviewing sexual harassment policies

The House Administration Committee, which oversees the chamber’s daily operations, is conducting a review of sexual harassment awareness training amid calls to make it a requirement on Capitol Hill.

Congressional offices are currently not required to undergo sexual harassment training, unlike in the executive branch where it's mandatory for employees.

Two female lawmakers, Reps. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.) and Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), are introducing bills to make such training required for members and staff.

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A spokeswoman for the House Administration Committee said on Monday the panel is reviewing possible changes to the current policy.

“The Committee is conducting a review of sexual harassment awareness training for the House. This is an important issue and the House of Representatives is committed to preventing any form of harassment. There are resources available to both Members and staff which promote a safe and productive work environment, whether the individual is a new employee or has been working on Capitol Hill for years,” the spokeswoman said.

The committee spokeswoman pointed to available sexual harassment awareness trainings, both online and in-person, available from the Office of Compliance, the Office of House Employment Counsel and the Office of the House Chief Administrative Officer.

“We are currently evaluating what additional resources might be made available and any other ways in which the House might assist our Members and their staff,” the spokeswoman said.

Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanMcConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees House Republican: 'I worry about both sides' of the aisle on DACA Overnight Health Care: 3.6M signed up for ObamaCare in first month | Ryan pledges 'entitlement reform' next year | Dems push for more money to fight opioids MORE (R-Wis.), through a spokeswoman, expressed support for the committee’s review.

“The speaker believes the House Administration Committee is right to review the standing procedures and resources available to staff,” Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong said.

The spotlight on sexual harassment policies in Congress comes after Hollywood film mogul Harvey Weinstein and other prominent media figures have been accused of aggressive sexual behavior toward women.

Lawrence introduced her bill last week, and it currently has 38 cosponsors. So far, that includes one Republican: Rep. Bruce Poliquin (R-Maine).

Lawrence, who previously served as an equal opportunity investigator and training manager at the U.S. Postal Service, said having a policy of mandatory sexual harassment training in Congress would help set a tone for zero tolerance.

She already requires such training for her office.

“This a first step,” Lawrence told The Hill. “How could anyone say that we should not train and set a tone on our own staffs in the Capitol that we’re expecting for other federal employees?”

Speier, meanwhile, is also planning legislation to overhaul the process available to Capitol Hill staff to report harassment.

Currently, staffers must take part in months of counseling and mediation with their employing office before filing a formal complaint with the Office of Compliance.

A complaint filed with the Office of Compliance then leads to a hearing, which is conducted by a contracted officer. If a settlement is reached, the money comes from a separate fund handled by the Treasury Department. Settlement funds do not come directly from a lawmaker’s office budget.

Speier thinks the process should be reformed to encourage victims to come forward, possibly by limiting the time frames in each step of the process so they won’t be intimidated by a lengthy process. Her office said that she plans to unveil the bill as soon as this week.

On Friday, Speier released a video in which she shared her own experience of sexual harassment while working as a congressional staffer.

“Congress has been a breeding ground for a hostile work environment for far too long,” Speier said. “There is nothing to fear in telling the truth, and it’s time to throw back the curtain on repulsive behavior that until now, has thrived in the dark without consequences."

Speier previously introduced legislation in 2014 to make sexual harassment training mandatory for congressional offices.

That same year, the House adopted an amendment authored by Speier to set aside $500,000 for mandatory sexual harassment training for offices. It sailed through by voice vote at the time, but was not ultimately enacted into law.

Former Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.), the House Administration Committee chairwoman at the time who has since retired from Congress, expressed support for Speier’s proposal.

“Every employee that works on this Hill needs to work in an environment that they feel is free from sexual harassment,” Miller said at the time. “I think that Congress needs to be a leader on this issue.”