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Farenthold Case Prompts Talk About Sexual Harassment on Capitol Hill

Cloakroom buzzed about sexual harassment as the House Ethics Committee announced its next step on Farenthold's case. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

"What do you do if you're being sexually harassed in your office?" one user asked Monday morning on the anonymous Capitol Hill social-networking app Cloakroom.  

It prompted one person, identifying himself as a 26-year-old male working for a 40-year-old female chief of staff, to share his own situation.  

"She has slapped my ass, talked about her vibrator, and has asked me sexual questions. I have ignored them but I am thinking about going to the member," he submitted to the online community, limited to users whose GPS location is within the Capitol complex, or those who register with a staff email address. The thread drew 30 responses, ranging from vulgar to stoic. Some advised contacting the appropriate ethics committee to document the details or reaching out to the House Office of Employee Assistance for professional and emotional counseling. One warned the user to accept that reporting the harassment means, "You will need to accept that your career on the Hill will be over."  

As Cloakroom users talked shop about office sexual harassment, the House Ethics Committee announced it would continue its review of sexual harassment allegations against Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, as civil litigation proceeds in a case brought by his former communications director. The Office of Congressional Ethics on Monday said it did not find substantial reason to believe the congressman sexually harassed his staffer, but the committee said it had not completed its review of the matter. A link to CQ Roll Call's story in the app drew comparisons to the other case in which the committee addressed the topic.

In late 2014, the committee chided  Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, D-Fla., for unprofessional behavior with female employees of the United States Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, including comments about sex and underwear. But the committee ultimately cleared Hastings of allegations that he made unwanted sexual advances toward a Republican aide on the commission.  

Both the Farenthold and Hastings cases concern allegations against members of Congress; far less attention is given to conflicts between staff members in the same congressional office.  

Even without knowing the facts involved, the staffer wondering about sexual harassment should speak to Office of Compliance. Such conversations and counseling are strictly confidential and will provide a better understanding of what recourse is available. Even a sympathetic member of Congress may not be in the ideal position to police their interoffice dynamics. The Office of Compliance is the right place to start. If and when the conversation escalates, there will be a trained professional present to ensure a better outcome for everyone involved.  

Unfortunately, just as in any other workplace, claims of discrimination and harassment are present on Capitol Hill. Staffers are protected from such discrimination under the Congressional Accountability Act. Several congressional agencies — such as the Library of Congress — are exempted from parts of the CAA and have their own employee complaint and resolution system.  

The Office of Compliance provides confidential counseling to employees — including House and Senate staffers, the office of the Architect of the Capitol and the Capitol Police — and are mandated by the CAA to provide statistical data to Congress annually. Recent data  show that claims of discrimination and/or harassment on Capitol Hill have remained relatively constant since 2009.  

Outlets such as Cloakroom (or even Hill Navigator ) may be helpful in providing camaraderie and support, but neither is a substitute for the professional expertise within the Office of Compliance. As one Cloakroom commenter pointed out, the member of Congress could side with the chief of staff, leaving the accusing staffer with little recourse. Such predicaments, while we hope they are rare, are the precise reason why such professional and confidential counseling is needed. Stat.  

Staffers seeking more information or wishing to report a complaint can contact the Office of Compliance at (202) 724-9250 or visit the website. All inquiries are strictly confidential.