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Congress is a breeding ground for harassment

As workplace sexual harassment allegations grow, reports put Congress at center stage.

Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi And House Democrats Hold News Conference On President's Controversial Tweets At MSNBC's TV Anchors Drew Angerer/Getty Images

As more and more women go public with allegations of sexual harassment against public figures, Congress is coming under scrutiny.

Conversations with congressional aides in the wake of the revelations about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein all indicate a not-so-surprising reality on Capitol Hill: Everyone has heard of someone who has gone through hell in the workplace — from sexual assault to office abuses.

But in this major power center, workplace harassment isn’t a conversation congressional offices have until it absolutely needs to be had — whether because of a bombshell news report or a victim’s push for internal review.

While national media homed in on the details of the Weinstein case in mid-October, a pro-life Republican, Pennsylvania Rep. Tim Murphy, resigned after news broke that he had pressured his mistress to have an abortion. The scandal unveiled a history of harassment in Murphy’s office, including an abusive chief of staff who established a toxic work environment of mental abuse and strong-arm leadership.

Reports from Politico and Washington Post indicate the problem is much more pervasive. These accounts detail that Congress didn’t develop a reporting system for harassment until 1995, after Republican Sen. Bob Packwood resigned in disgrace over harassment claims. Since then, it’s become clear there’s more work to be done.

“It is not a victim-friendly process. It is an institution-protection process,” Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA), told the Washington Post. “I think we would find that sexual harassment is rampant in the institution. But no one wants to know, because they’d have to do something about it.”

All too often, these stories bubble up in Washington: The high-stakes, high-pressure environment and striking power imbalance between low-paid employees and the nation’s politicians allow for unfettered corruption and misconduct.

Congress is a breeding ground for harassment

There are certain factors that lead to higher levels of workplace harassment:

  • In male-dominated environments, women experience high levels of harassment.
  • Workplaces that revolve around the approval of a powerful figure of authority create a risk for harassment.
  • Those in low-wage positions experience high levels of harassment because they do not have bargaining power to push back.

Congress checks those boxes.

“Wherever there are big power disparities with people working closely together, that is a risk factor for work place harassment,” Emily Martin, general counsel and vice president of workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center, said. “When you have a congressman working with a woman who is in her first job after college, that is a dynamic that can risk work place harassment.”

Working relationships are currency on Capitol Hill, where the future of people’s careers hinges on supporting a person in power. Staff positions are low-paid and have high turnover — and moving jobs often requires having a good reputation.

For those experiencing harassment, there’s a constant fear of tarnishing that reputation. And it’s a well-founded concern — a 2015 analysis of complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission shows 75 percent of women who report harassment experience retaliation, a real fear on Capitol Hill.

“I was in the position of having no choice but reacting in a way that was going to make a big deal out of it in front his staff or his wife, or acting like nothing was happening. I chose the latter,” Ally Coll Steele, a former Democratic senator’s intern, told the Washington Post, about the senator grabbing her buttocks at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

Time and time again, these stories come to the surface. In 2015, Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-TX) settled a sexual harassment case with his former communications director Lauren Greene, after a series of inappropriate comments. Farenthold still holds office. In 2011, Rep. John Ensign (R-NV) resigned after acknowledging having an affair with a staffer. In 2010, Rep. Eric Massa (D-NY) resigned after allegations that he had groped a male staffer. In 2014, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) shared personal accounts of sexual harassment from her Senate colleagues. The list goes on.

For many staffers, the best solution is often to change offices, a practice that can allow a serial offender to affect more individuals. There’s no question that most cases in Congress are going unreported.

Solutions are few and far between. In 2014, Speier introduced legislation that would mandate members and staff undergo harassment training — which is mostly effective in helping people identify harassing behavior not necessarily preventing it. Currently, no one in the Capitol is required to undergo harassment training. Now Speier is planning to introduce legislation to revamp Congress’s oversight entity, and is encouraging people to come forward with their own stories.

“The chief of staff held my face kissed me and stuck his tongue in my mouth,” Speier said in a video campaign calling on congressional staffers and members to share their experiences of harassment. “I know what it’s like to keep these things hidden deep down inside. … Congress has been a breeding ground for a hostile work environment for far too long.”

There’s a system for oversight in Congress. It’s not accessible.

Ethics Investigators Launch Inquiry Into Lawmakers And Aides
A sign for the Office of Congressional Ethics.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

What transpired in Murphy’s office was an apparent breakdown of structures put into place to address civil rights and labor violations — a perversion of a code of conduct that went unreported.

But it’s not an uncommon story.

“In a lot of ways each member’s office is run like a small business,” one congressional aide told Vox. “They decide how to spend money on personnel, travel, etc., and create their own office culture. It’s true offices don’t end up having an HR department — we just aren’t given the resources for that.”

Technically, there is oversight — The US Congress Office of Compliance handles workplace complaints and received 198 harassment claims in 2016, slightly up from previous years. Legally, congressional lawmakers and staff — from senators and representatives to Capitol police — are offered protections through the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act, which enacted civil rights, labor, workplace safety, and health laws to Congress and agencies under the legislative branch.

“We encourage employees to call our office to speak to a counselor on any workplace issue so it does not escalate into a violation,” Pamela Sumberg, COO deputy executive director, said.

Speier has called the system “toothless” — and conversations with staffers support her claim.

“There seems to be a lack of awareness that there is a process available,” Martin said. “I have heard from staffers that say we don’t have HR … it’s not part of the standard procedures. These offices are not especially large and function informally as a result.”

The official substitute for individual HR departments is a confusing network of oversight bodies that address different complaints in various ways. It’s a difficult system to navigate, and one that can have unsatisfactory results.

There’s an independent body that oversees that law’s enforcement — the Office of Compliance, where all staffers can report harassment and undergo confidential counseling or mediation, or file a federal suit. And in the House and Senate, ethics committees investigate members’ offices in violation of House and Senate rules of conduct. There is a fourth entity, the Office of Congressional Ethics, where members and staff can file complaints for them to be referred to the ethics committees. Not every claim is considered by the congressional ethics committees — and complaints that are can often lead to investigations and reviews that can take years.

“I didn’t even know it existed as a resource,” a former congressional staffer told Politico of the compliance office. “You don’t have an HR Department on the Hill. There’s no one place that you go. Nobody on the Hill has any idea how you report and deal with sexual harassment.”

According to Martin, the solution isn’t to only mandate workplace harassment training — although that would be a good start. To truly help remedy the situation requires establishing more formalized structures within congressional offices, strengthening the relationship with the Office of Compliance, and creating more avenues for anonymous reporting.

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