House Approves Funding for Sexual Harassment Training to End 'Mad Men-Style Antics' (Audio)

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Rep. Vance McAllister's affair put the spotlight on sexual relationships between members of Congress and their aides, but "he was not the tipping point" for the lawmaker pushing mandatory sexual harassment training for all House offices.  

"We've had plenty of incidents before him," Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., told CQ Roll Call on Thursday, in reference to the Louisiana Republican. "The truth is, there's a vulnerability that I've thought for a long time needed to be fixed."  

The women of the House aired much of the Congress' dirty laundry during debate of the proposal to provide $500,000 for lawmakers and their staff to undergo training about what constitutes inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace. Under current law, Congress is not covered by certain workplace rights laws required for private businesses and the executive branch, including mandatory discrimination training.  The legislative branch appropriations bill approved Thursday includes money for the Office of Compliance aimed at enhancing training programs by implementing a web-based platform. "When I came to Congress I was outraged by some of the behavior of my colleagues," said Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y. "In one incident, a woman member was told to share a seat with a male colleague when there weren't enough chairs at a committee meeting. While there certainly have been improvements, recent events embarrassing this institution highlight the continued need for training." There were references to illegal behaviors including sex with teenage pages, inappropriate touching of staffers and groping. Speier condemned members for conducting themselves like "freshman in a frat house," while Lowey decried "Mad Men-style antics" in congressional offices.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., cited surveys finding that "anywhere from 25 percent to 31 percent reported that they were sexually harassed, mostly by a supervisor ... There's no reason to think that the House of Representatives is immune to this problem."

According to data from the Office of Congressional Compliance, the agency that enforces anti-discrimination laws in the legislative branch and tries to educate congressional employees on their rights, claims of discrimination in the House are rare. Over a five-year period, only 2 percent of the 435 member offices had claims filed against them.

That could be the result of a lack of information on workplace rights. Under current law, congressional workplaces are not required to post employee rights, but the vast majority of people who contact OCC with inquiries are seeking information on harassment or hostile working conditions.

House Administration Chairwoman Candice S. Miller, R-Mich., suggested Wednesday that "every employee that works on this Hill needs to work in an environment that they feel is free from sexual harassment, and if they feel threatened in any way, they need to be able to understand what their rights, what recourse they have to protect themselves without any fear of retribution."

Miller recently met with senior staff at OCC to talk about what kind of additional workplace training might be helpful when the House puts together its new members' orientation program in the fall.

OCC currently offers an anti-discrimination course, but only on a voluntary basis. Speier  and her staff recently participated in the 90-minute anti-discrimination training, typically requested only after an office reports an incident.  

"As much as I know about this issue, I learned something," said the congresswoman who has been at the forefront of speaking out against rape and harassment on college campuses and in the military branches. "If your staff member is being harassed by a third party outside the office, you have a responsibility, which I never knew before."  

Congressional employees can also file sexual harassment claims with the OOC within 180 days of incidents, and request formal, confidential counseling. In fiscal 2012, employees filed 83 counseling requests. The vast majority of cases filed with the OOC are resolved confidentially with counseling or mediation. Outside reviews of anti-discrimination programs have found that they can help employees become more sensitive to issues of sexual harassment, and can be particularly effective in clarifying men’s views about unwanted sexual behavior.  

"There's so much for all of us to learn, even for those that think they know it all," Speier said. "I think for everyone else, it's going to provide them with knowledge of what is and isn't appropriate."  

Corrected, 11:20 a.m.: A previous version of this story misstated the effect of the amendment.  It requires sexual harassment training for all House offices.   The story also misquoted Debbie Wasserman Schultz's citing of a survey on sexual harassment in the workplace.  Twenty-five to 31 percent of women in the workplace reported that they were sexually harassed.