On Capitol Hill, few name names on sexual harassment
Capitol Hill is facing a reckoning over sexual harassment, but hardly anyone wants to name names.
Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) became the first current lawmaker to be accused of sexual misconduct last week when a Los Angeles radio news anchor said that he had forcibly kissed and groped her during a USO tour in 2006.
But perhaps tellingly, the woman who came forward with the allegations, Leeann Tweeden, is not a member of the Capitol Hill community.
In the House and Senate, lawmakers and staffers alike say sexual harassment is a common problem that makes Congress no different from other industries roiled in recent weeks by documented cases of harassment and even assault.
Yet in a workplace where relationships are transactional and staff are expected to put their bosses first, victims have not put names forward.
“I think there’s a great reluctance to finger a member because there’s this fear that one’s career in the Capitol will be over if you come out,” said Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), who as a staffer experienced harassment on Capitol Hill in the 1970s.
“There’s an extra burden for a staffer to come forward on Capitol Hill right now if they’re still working in the building.”
Similar pressures and fears kept accusations about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, comedian Louis C.K. and others under wraps for years. But since the Weinstein news broke, barriers seem to have come down.
In Congress, however, staffers and lawmakers with stories to tell seem uniquely reluctant to identify their harassers. It’s worth noting that women only make up about 20 percent of Congress, where seats are still mostly held by white men.
Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.), the vice chairwoman of the House Democratic Caucus, told The Associated Press that a male colleague, who is no longer in Congress, repeatedly ogled her and touched her inappropriately on the House floor. She added that another current male lawmaker, who she has since learned to avoid, tried to proposition her.
She did not name either men, telling The Associated Press that “I just don’t think it would be helpful” to name the harasser who still serves in Congress.
Speier testified before the House Administration Committee that two current lawmakers of both parties have been accused of sexual harassment.
She similarly declined to name either lawmaker, citing one victim bound by a nondisclosure agreement and another who does not want to go public — an echo of the agreements used by Weinstein to hide his behavior.
Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) told the House Administration Committee of a young female staffer who quit her job because a male lawmaker exposed himself to her. Comstock said she heard the story secondhand and did not know the lawmaker’s identity, only that he is still in Congress.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) also said that she had been sexually harassed as a Capitol Hill intern in 1974, but declined to say if it was from a staffer or lawmaker.
“I’m not going to comment as to details of it, but suffice it to say that it happened more than once from more than one person,” McCaskill said, according to the Washington Examiner.
The very nature of Capitol Hill staffers’ jobs makes it hard to come forward with allegations against powerful lawmakers or top aides. They’re expected to cater to their bosses’ every need and put the team over themselves, whether that team is their employing office, political party or the institution itself.
Travis Moore, the founder of TechCongress and former legislative director to ex-House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), put it this way: “You’re no longer Travis Moore. You’re Team Waxman.”
Moore recently spearheaded a letter signed by more than 1,500 former Hill staffers urging lawmakers to reform sexual harassment prevention policies. He specifically limited it to former staffers because of the political constraints on people who currently work in congressional offices.
Like Hollywood and the media, Congress remains a male-dominated workplace where women frequently find it hard to be taken as seriously.
Women often want to appear tough and might laugh off inappropriate behavior. Or they question themselves whether interactions that made them uncomfortable quite meet the legal definition of sexual harassment.
“It’s still in many ways a man’s world and women kind of are always aware of trying to be sure that they’re taken seriously and treated equally,” said Kristin Nicholson, the director of the Government Affairs Institute and former chief of staff to Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) who also signed onto Moore’s letter.
As a result, Nicholson said, “You feel a need to just shrug off minor offenses, jokes or leering or maybe not ongoing harassment, but just little things that you encounter day to day, because the last thing women on the Hill want is to be seen as they’re too delicate to hack it in that world.”
Nicholson, who worked on Capitol Hill for two decades, acknowledged that spending most of that time as a senior staffer likely helped insulate her from particularly egregious behavior. But she still encountered things like sexist jokes and inappropriate comments about physical appearance in the middle of meetings.
“I can’t even count the number of little things over the years that my colleagues and I all have had to just sit through or smile or laugh off,” Nicholson said.
Unlike in the executive branch, where employees must undergo sexual harassment awareness training, it has long been merely optional for Congress.
Lawmakers say that reforming the process available to staffers to report harassment and mandating training for members and staff is the best they can do for now to bring accountability to Capitol Hill.
Speier and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) introduced legislation to require the training and overhaul the complaint filing process available through the Office of Compliance, including by making a current months-long mandatory counseling and mediation process optional.
Currently, any monetary settlements made to resolve harassment complaints are paid from a special fund operated by the Treasury. The bill from Speier and Gillibrand would require lawmakers accused of harassment to pay back the taxpayers.
In cases with settlements, the Office of Compliance would have to publish the names of employing offices and the amounts paid on its website.
The Senate passed a resolution earlier this month to require sexual harassment training for members and staff. Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said he wants to do the same for the House, and lawmakers say they hope to act with legislation as soon as after the Thanksgiving recess.
Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.), who practiced employment law for three decades and also testified before the House Administration Committee last week, predicted that reforming the process would result in more people coming forward.
“I think that will encourage people. In fact, I predict a spike in complaints,” Byrne said.
More than anything, though, lawmakers hope that the national cultural shift of assuming the credibility of women alleging sexual harassment will encourage change in attitudes on Capitol Hill.
Rep. Ann McLane Kuster (D-N.H.) was sexually assaulted by what she described as a “distinguished guest of the United States Congress” while she was a 23-year-old Hill staffer nearly four decades ago. Only last year did Kuster tell anyone, after being inspired by the still-anonymous victim of the Stanford University swimmer whose statement drew national attention.
“I didn’t say anything for almost 40 years because the focus would have been on me. The focus would have been what I was wearing, what I did to make this happen, why I was offended by it, rather than any focus on the behavior of the perpetrator,” Kuster, who signed onto the Speier–Gillibrand measure, told The Hill.
Since then, Kuster said she concluded it’s critical for survivors to speak up.
“I’ve realized that the silence of my generation makes us almost complicit in the environment of rampant sexual assault and sexual harassment in the workplace, on college campuses, in the military. And I realized we’ve got to come forward and tell our stories.”
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