A group of former congressional aides wants to help their successors come forward with sexual harassment and other discrimination complaints. So they’re offering a support network they say will fill in the gaps in a congressional workplace protection law scheduled for a House markup next week.
They have launched a website, congresstoo.org, to collect resources, which include the names of lawyers and a public relations expert who have offered to help current staff members dealing with harassment at work.
And that’s just a start.
Organizers say it’s all about harnessing the momentum from the national #MeToo movement to make lasting change on Capitol Hill — and sending a message to the aides who have too often been expected to subvert their dignity to the demands of political careers.
“There is a big group of us who have their back,” said Travis Moore, who served as a legislative director for former California Rep. Henry A. Waxman. “One of the ways we can be valuable is to try to connect people dealing with challenging issues on the Hill now with people who have dealt with those issues in the past.”
The website grew from an evening meeting in January at a nondescript Washington, D.C., office building. Over wine and pretzels, former staffers talked about their own experiences, and disappointments, during their time on the Hill. They discussed what they could do to help current aides and wrote down ideas on sticky notes that they attached to the wall.
The mood in the room was optimistic, Moore said. Former staffers saw an opportunity to provide a voice that is not normally part of discussions about how Congress functions, because staff members are generally reluctant to speak independently of lawmakers they work for.
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Debra Katz, who has represented congressional victims of harassment and employment discrimination, is one of the lawyers who agreed to offer her services to the group.
“The trauma of being sexually harassed on the Hill can be career-derailing,” she said.
She said she would be happy to counsel people about options beyond filing a lawsuit or having their stories circulated in the press. That includes lodging complaints with the House and Senate Ethics committees or writing letters to party leaders to alert them to the situation.
Les Alderman, another workplace discrimination lawyer who offered to help, said he would spend as much time as staffers need to discuss their allegations and help them determine whether they have a case.
He said the laws and existing resources on the Hill are not the only things stopping staff members from coming forward with their complaints.
“It’s because they know it’s career suicide, no matter what the law says,” Alderman said. “I have a lot of sympathy for people on the Hill because they are trapped in a very difficult situation.”
Katherine Cichy, a former communications director for the Senate Banking Committee, has offered to help staff members who are thinking about telling their stories to the media. Cichy spoke with The New York Times and the Today show in November about her own experience dealing with harassment when she worked on the Hill.
The new effort has its roots in social media forums in which former staffers discussed their own experiences with harassment in the early days of the #MeToo movement.
More than 1,200 signed a widely circulated letter in November calling for Congress to do more about sexual harassment. A handful came forward with their own accounts of humiliations they endured for their careers on the Hill.
Those efforts helped pressure lawmakers to act quickly to address shortcomings in the way Congress addresses sexual harassment complaints. The resulting bipartisan bill would be the first in 23 years to revise the Congressional Accountability Act, Congress’ employment and workplace safety law.
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Some of the former staffers wanted to find ways they could create more lasting changes in the workplace culture on the Hill.
Kristin Nicholson, a former longtime chief of staff to Rhode Island Democratic Rep. Jim Langevin, helped organize the November letter. She and Moore sent an email to all the people who had signed it asking them to join a Google group if they wanted to stay involved. So far, about 700 people have joined. The brainstorming meeting was the first time many of them had met in person.
“We are hoping this group could play a role in addressing not just general thoughts on legislative changes that are due, but also the broader issue of addressing a culture that has fostered all sorts of inappropriate behavior, whether it’s the lack of opportunities for women or women not feeling empowered to speak up when things don’t feel right,” Nicholson said.
She described the website as a small first step to pull together resources in a place where staff members could find them.
The group is also exploring how it could serve as a job networking resource for staff members whose jobs are at risk because of a boss’s indiscretions. That includes staff members who want to come forward with a complaint against a current boss and those whose jobs are collateral damage when a lawmaker resigns in disgrace.