Among the many charges of sexual misbehavior that surfaced during the 2016 campaign was one in October by Donald Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, who recalled members of Congress in the past “rubbing up against girls, sticking their tongues down women’s throats” without their consent.
Conway did not name names.
In 1995, Congress enacted a law aimed at ensuring its staffers enjoy the same workplace rights as those in the private sector. That was about the same time Conway was founding her polling firm.
But few congressional aides make use of its reporting procedures, according to a review of records by CQ Roll Call, and Congress has done little since to encourage victims to come forward. The Office of Compliance, which the 1995 law established to enforce workplace protections for congressional employees, has urged Congress since 1996 to implement mandatory training to deter sexual harassment, but lawmakers have ignored that advice.
And there are victims. Four in 10 of the women who responded to a CQ Roll Call survey of congressional staff in July said they believed sexual harassment is a problem on Capitol Hill, while one in six said they personally had been victimized.
In recent years, high-profile cases have emerged. In 2006, Republican Rep. Mark Foley of Florida resigned after being accused of sexually harassing teenagers who served as pages, whose job was delivering messages on the House floor. House leaders ended the page program in 2011.
In 2010, Democratic Rep. Eric Massa of New York resigned after aides accused him of making unwanted sexual overtures.
In 2015, GOP Rep. Blake Farenthold of Texas settled a lawsuit brought by a former aide who’d accused him of sexual harassment. Affairs with aides, meanwhile, led to the resignations of two other Republicans, Rep. Mark Souder of Indiana, in 2010, and Sen. John Ensign of Nevada, in 2011.
Congress has taken no steps to tighten its controls even as the issue has exploded again into the national arena with high-profile alleged perpetrators. During the campaign, nearly a dozen women accused Trump of sexual assault, and dozens more have gone public saying entertainer Bill Cosby assaulted them. Media mogul Roger Ailes was forced to resign as president of Fox News last summer following complaints about sexual harassment.
In Washington, lawyers and activists say that sexual abuse is drastically underreported on Capitol Hill, where they say political pressure and job uncertainty, combined with a weak system to make claims, keep victims quiet.
A Roll Call review of annual reports from the Office of Compliance found that the personal and committee offices of representatives and senators are less likely to file grievances or seek protections than support staffs, such as Architect of the Capitol or Capitol Police employees.
Seeking “confidential counseling” with the Office of Compliance is the first step in the dispute resolution process set up by the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act. Of the over 2,100 requests for counseling filed with the Office of Compliance since its reporting began in 1996, through 2015, 44 percent came from employees of the Architect of the Capitol and 38 percent came from the U.S. Capitol Police while only 12 percent of the requests came from the House, and 5 percent from the Senate.
That’s despite the fact that the Senate and House, with 13,689 staffers between them, employ more than three times as many workers as the Architect (2,103) and Capitol Police (2,100), according to the Brookings Institution’s most recent edition of “Vital Statistics on Congress.”
“You’re dealing with high-profile people and people are really afraid,” said Kristin Alden, founder of a Washington firm that specializes in employment law. “The fear factor is tremendous, much stronger than we’ve found it to be in private sector or executive agencies.”
And, Alden added, powerful people “are more inclined to think they can get away with it.”
Debra Katz, an employment lawyer at Katz, Marshall & Banks in Washington, said the threat of political scandal is a huge incentive for workers to keep quiet.
“There’s a lot of partisan pressure, too, of, ‘Don’t do this to the party, don’t do this to our leadership, don’t embarrass us,’” she said.
This type of repressive culture abounds on Capitol Hill, as is the likelihood of retaliation from employers, said Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat who has been pushing for mandatory training of all congressional employees to help prevent sexual harassment in the workplace.
“You report this to an ethics office or to the [Office of Compliance] and you might as well write your pink slip up, because the chances of you getting another job in the building are slim to none,” Speier said.
Katz said people working on Capitol Hill know that making a complaint “is career-ending.”
“People tend to suck it up and live with harassment or try to get a position elsewhere rather than act bringing a case,” she said.
Alden noted that many employees on the Hill are younger and may be less confident challenging harassment. “[They’re] more naive,” she said. “They aren’t as seasoned. They’re more afraid of the consequences.”
To be sure, reporting sexual harassment and filing complaints against abusers is rare in business and government across the country.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the authority on these complaints in the federal government and private sector, reported in 2015 that “approximately 90 percent” of people who are harassed — sexually or otherwise — never make a formal complaint. But based on anonymous surveys of workers, the report found that, conservatively, one in four women had been sexually harassed at work.
Only 10 percent of the women who responded to CQ Roll Call’s survey in July said there was a structure in place for reporting allegations of harassment on Capitol Hill, suggesting either that they aren’t aware of the Office of Compliance or that they find it inadequate.
Interviews described in a report last August by the Office of Congressional Ethics revealed how messy sexual harassment can be in legislative offices. The OCE board recommended an ethics investigation of North Carolina Republican Rep. Mark Meadows, finding he had been paying his chief of staff, Kenny West, for months, after West was fired for alleged sexual harassment of women on Meadows’ staff.
Meadows hired West shortly after his first election to the House in 2012, after West — who ran against him in the GOP primary — dropped out of the race and endorsed Meadows. West, the former chairman of the Clay County, North Carolina, Republican Party, had run on a platform of bringing “Godly values” to Washington.
Three women in Meadows’ office, all of whom have since left for other jobs, recounted their experiences with West, who is now 59, in testimony before the board. A legislative assistant identified as Witness B said she had been warned by her co-workers as soon as she was hired not to wear her hair in a ponytail, because West “really likes to play with girls’ hair when it’s in a ponytail” and “seems to touch girls’ hair a lot.”
She described being pulled into West’s office for an hour and a half to talk in the middle of the day, including one moment when “he was trying to look down my shirt.” West often hugged another woman, Witness B said in the interview, who felt he was “trying to feel her chest and look down her shirt.”
The aide said a summer intern, in her exit interview, listed the highs and lows of her experience in Meadows’ office: “Couldn’t tell you what her high was, but she said her low was how Kenny touched her.”
According to the testimony, a male employee approached Meadows to tell him about West’s behavior. West disappeared from the office without a formal announcement, but continued to show up for months by email or phone. The staff didn’t know whether West had been fired.
“It led me to think nothing happened at all,” Witness B said in her interview. “He’s still going to be in the picture. He’s still going to be chief, and now it’s going to be probably a lot worse because he knows that we all tried to basically get him fired.”
Meadows officially announced to his staff that West would be replaced in April 2015, six months after he had been approached with the stories of sexual harassment. Congressional records indicate that West was paid until Aug. 15 that year.
An extensive study of sexual harassment in the federal government hasn’t been done since 1995, when one was conducted by the Merit Systems Protection Board, which adjudicates disputes between federal workers and their agencies. Back then, it surveyed about 8,000 federal employees, with 44 percent of women and 19 percent of men reporting unwanted sexual attention in their workplaces during the previous two years.
In recent years, cases have burst onto the public scene in vivid detail. Several were the subject of explosive hearings before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, including sexual harassment among National Park Service employees.
“There seems to be some patterns here that are just not anything we should come close to tolerating,” said the committee’s chairman, Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, at a hearing on the allegations last September.
Congress has been quick to respond forcefully when harassment becomes an issue in both the public and private sectors. It overwhelmingly approved a “bill of rights” for survivors of sexual assaults that President Barack Obama signed into law in October.
But putting its own house in order has been a different story, despite the allegations that led to the resignations of Foley and Massa.
The Office of Congressional Ethics’ investigation of Farenthold, the Texas congressman, ultimately resulted in no action against him and the office issued a statement casting doubt on the accuser’s veracity. In the midst of that investigation, a 26-year-old male staffer posted on Cloakroom, the anonymous gossip app for congressional staff, about being harassed by his female chief of staff. “She has slapped my ass, talked about her vibrator and has asked me sexual questions,” he posted.
The Office of Compliance gives congressional employees up to 180 days after an alleged incident of harassment to request counseling, which lasts for 30 days. Next come 30 days of mediation if the victim requests it, where the employee and the office can confidentially reach a voluntary settlement.
After at least two months of those steps, the employee can request an administrative proceeding before a hearing officer or file a case in federal district court. Neither process can start until 30 days after mediation, but no longer than 90 days after. Following an administrative hearing, the employee has the option of appealing the officer’s decision to the Office of Compliance’s board.
Katz said the Office of Compliance process is not conducive to reporting harassment. “You need a mechanism that’s very user-friendly and many people feel the OOC is not really there to serve their interests,” she said. “They make people go through a confidential mediation process. I know of no such requirement in any other agency. And that’s clearly designed to protect members of Congress and their staff.”
In most federal offices outside Capitol Hill, an employee has 45 days after an incident of sexual harassment to contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. If the employee files a complaint, the agency has 180 days to investigate and offer a resolution. The employee can then appeal to an EEOC administrative judge, who issues a decision.
“Congress has not applied the laws to themselves in the same way,” Alden said. “The enforcement mechanisms are different. It’s more difficult to file the complaint and go far with the complaint.”
Unlike federal agencies that require training in proper workplace behavior and how to report abuses, that lack of any such requirements in congressional offices means employees may be unclear about what sexual harassment is and how to report it. Congress has virtually ignored two decades of compliance office recommendations to establish such requirements.
Speier was concerned about the lack of attention to the issue in political offices long before she was first elected to Congress in 2008. As a California state assembly member in the 1980s, she said, “I had young women coming in telling me how difficult it was to work in the state Capitol because of all the sexual harassment going on.”
Many state legislatures have a history of similar problems. In her 2015 memoir, “Plenty Ladylike,” Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri described how she was harassed as an intern in the state legislature in 1974. Four decades later, in 2015, the Missouri House speaker and a state senator were both forced to resign after sending inappropriate messages to interns.
In 2014, after Republican Rep. Vance McAllister of Louisiana was caught in a leaked video kissing an aide in his office, Speier and Rep. Susan W. Brooks, an Indiana Republican, insisted on more training funds for the Office of Compliance. McAllister lost his bid for re-election that year and the office produced an online training module about sexual harassment.
Paula Sumberg, the Office of Compliance’s deputy executive director for the House, said that after Speier and other lawmakers raised the issue, about 30 offices requested training in the next six months. Still, in the bulk of member offices, Sumberg said, “the staff development is left to areas that aren’t sexual harassment,” such as training in ethics.
The Office of Compliance’s latest annual report, for fiscal 2016, shows that 77 Hill employees sought counseling from the office on issues involving harassment and discrimination, though the office doesn’t specify whether the complaints came from congressional staffers or support staff.
None of the women from Meadows’ office who testified for the ethics investigation mentioned going to the Office of Compliance, though counseling would have been confidential. Staff in Meadows’ office said they feared retribution if they pressed about West’s situation or reported it.
“I think a lot of people were kind of worried about saying something, at the risk of their job,” a staff assistant, called Witness A, told interviewers.
Witness B said staffers kept quiet to protect the congressman’s reputation. “We talked about how we all, as an office, had to be extremely conscious in what was said, because Mark has a target on his back,” she said. “We both were well aware that the Kenny thing very well could become public any day.”
“People worry a great deal about retaliation when they bring forth these kinds of claims,” says Richard Salzman, a federal employment lawyer in Washington. “It’s much less common for people to feel protected enough to come forward.”
Michael Kane, a lawyer who works with federal employees, said retaliation is a common side effect of sexual harassment complaints.
“The managers who they’re complaining about may take retaliatory action,” he said. “[Like] downgraded performance appraisals, or maybe they don’t get the assignment they’re trying to get.”
Rebecca Gale contributed to this report.Erin Bacon is a contributing writer for CQ Roll Call.