Ryan: House to mandate anti-sexual harassment training

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) announced Tuesday the House will introduce mandatory anti-sexual harassment training after multiple female lawmakers went public with accusations against unnamed current colleagues. 

The move marked a dramatic change for a body that has previously resisted imposing mandatory training for members and staff.

But the push in recent weeks to combat sexual harassment in the workplace reached a tipping point on Tuesday after female lawmakers’ stories piled up.

“I think the culture in this country has been awakened to the fact that we have a serious epidemic in the workplace,” said Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), who’s led the push to reform sexual harassment policies on Capitol Hill.

Ryan made the announcement hours after a House Administration Committee hearing about the legislative branch’s existing harassment policies and resources available for staff to report complaints.


“Our goal is not only to raise awareness, but also make abundantly clear that harassment in any form has no place in this institution,” the Speaker said in a statement.

At the hearing, Speier testified that two current members of Congress have been accused of sexual harassment.  

“In fact, there are two members of Congress, Republican and Democrat, right now, who serve, who have been subject to review or not have been subject to review, but have engaged in sexual harassment,” said Speier, who declined to identify the male lawmakers by name.

Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), a member of the House Administration Committee, shared a story about a male lawmaker harassing a young female staffer.

According to Comstock, the lawmaker asked the staffer to bring materials to his residence. He opened the door wearing only a towel and later exposed himself to the female staffer. 

The staffer quit her job after the incident. Comstock said she heard the story secondhand and did not know the lawmaker’s identity, only that he is still serving in Congress. 

“That kind of situation, what are we doing here for women right now who are dealing with somebody like that?” Comstock asked. 

A third female lawmaker, Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.), had told the Associated Press earlier this month that a male colleague repeatedly ogled her and touched her inappropriately on the House floor when she first began serving in the House.

Sánchez, who is now a member of House Democratic leadership, declined to identify the lawmaker but said he still serves in Congress.

She told reporters on Tuesday that she learned to avoid him and has advised newer members to do the same.

“The sort-of flood-gates have opened in terms of the people who are willing to talk about their experiences, and we can all learn from that,” Sánchez said. 

Across the Capitol, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said Tuesday that she was sexually harassed while working as a Capitol Hill intern in 1974

McCaskill told NBC News that she learned to avoid elevators while working in the Missouri statehouse because “elevators were when you were captured.”

Reforms to combat the pervasiveness of sexual harassment has been a long time coming on Capitol Hill, which remains a male-dominated workplace.

The inherent power differential between powerful male lawmakers and staffers who are expected to cater to their every whim can be a breeding ground for harassment. The pressure staffers face to avoid making their bosses look bad can add to the difficulty of persuading victims to come forward with allegations.

In 2014, Speier successfully added an amendment to an annual spending bill to require sexual harassment awareness training for members and staff. But her amendment was ultimately not included in the final version of the appropriations measure that became law.

At the time, ex-Rep. Vance McAllister (R-La.) had been revealed to be conducting an extramarital affair with a staffer.

Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.), who practiced employment law for 30 years, recommended in testimony to the House Administration panel that the legislative branch establish a uniform, streamlined harassment policy and explicitly forbid members from pursuing sexual relationships with staffers.

Lawmakers and staff have access to voluntary sexual harassment awareness training through the Office of Compliance, Office of House Employment Counsel and House Chief Administrative Officer, rather than a single, mandatory entity. 

Under the current policy through the Office of Compliance, staffers must go through months of counseling and mediation with the employing office before they can file a formal complaint. Staffers also have to sign nondisclosure agreements. 

If they decided to proceed with a complaint, they can choose to file it in court or seek an administrative hearing to negotiate for a settlement. Funds for any settlements are paid out of a Treasury Department fund, rather than the employing office.

Ryan’s announcement follows the Senate’s passage of a resolution last week to require sexual harassment awareness training for its members and staff.

A Ryan spokeswoman confirmed that the House policy change will happen through legislation. 

The Speaker had previously urged House members to take sexual harassment awareness training and require it for their staffs. But his announcement on Tuesday effectively guarantees the House will see reforms.

After Ryan announced the new policy, Rep. Annie Kuster (D-N.H.) praised the move and revealed her own experience of facing predatory behavior in Congress.

“As a young staffer I was assaulted by a guest of the Congress and had no training for how to respond, who to turn to, or what my rights were,” Kuster said in a statement. “This is a long overdue change.”

“We need to address sexual harassment and assault in workplaces across the country and the halls of Congress are no exception.”

Speier introduced a bipartisan bill earlier this month to require members and staff to undergo annual sexual harassment awareness training and file a certificate of completion with the House Ethics Committee.

The California Democrat also plans to file legislation this week to overhaul the Office of Compliance process for staff to report harassment complaints. 

Comstock said it’s incumbent on male lawmakers to push for reform as well.

“It’s important that the men talk about it too, because then it’s not just the women saying something and making men feel uncomfortable,” Comstock said.

—Updated at 5:46 p.m. Mike Lillis contributed. 

Tags Barbara Comstock Bradley Byrne Claire McCaskill Paul Ryan Sexual harassment
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