Politics

In Congress, Not Many Want to Say #MeToo

Appeals to Hill staffers to speak out mostly unanswered

California Rep. Jackie Speier plans to introduce legislation that would transform how Congress’ Office of Compliance treats cases of sexual misconduct. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Rep. Jackie Speier went first, divulging for the first time in public her experience with what she and others have described as rampant sexual harassment on Capitol Hill.

But the California Democrat’s appeal for others to share their stories has, so far at least, been met with silence. 

Three days after Speier launched #MeTooCongress as a platform for a frank and public discussion about the “breeding ground for a hostile work environment” on the Hill, few former or current staffers have shared personal stories using the hashtag. 

The response stands in stark contrast to the outpouring of detailed anecdotes that women have shared in recent weeks in response to exposes about sexual harassment in Hollywood, the media and other industries. But that doesn’t surprise people who have tried for years to improve the way congressional offices report and respond to allegations of harassment. 

“The cost [of speaking out] is still too high,” said Debra Katz, a Washington-based employment and civil rights lawyer who specializes in sexual harassment claims. Katz said she is frequently approached by aides at all levels of their careers on Capitol Hill.

Fallout fears

But once victims learn about the processes of filing complaints and the potential damage that may do to their careers, they rarely go public with their cases or follow through with legal action.

“There is a culture of silence and fear on Capitol Hill,” Katz said. “Members have all the power, and their staffers have little power. There is little upside to speaking out unless there is a critical mass of individuals who speak out about a particular member.”

A Roll Call review found only a handful of anecdotes about sexual harassment on the Hill posted using the #MeTooCongress or the more general #MeToo. Many of them were vague.

One post told of an introductory tour for a job in the Senate with a female boss. The new staffer, fresh out of college, was provided all the basics: the cafeteria, the credit union and “some advice.” 

Another described feeling compelled to “shut up and wear tight skirts” to keep her “dream job” on the Hill. 

Those posters and others who described harassment in Congress did not respond to Twitter requests to speak to a reporter. 

Few of the stories shared online match the vividness of Speier’s description of her assault in a video she posted Friday.

“The chief of staff held my face, kissed me, and stuck his tongue in my mouth,” she said.

Speier’s office said it has noticed “a lot” of people using the hashtag, but many who want to share their stories have preferred to do it over the phone — with the understanding that their identities would be protected, a spokeswoman said. 

“They all very much fear fallout in their careers,” said the spokeswoman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, per office policy. 

Speier could not immediately be reached for comment Monday. She plans to introduce legislation this week that could transform how Congress’ Office of Compliance treats cases of sexual misconduct.

A difficult process

A Roll Call report in February found that few congressional employees make use of procedures in place since 1995 to report harassment. But four in 10 of the women who responded to a survey for CQ and Roll Call of congressional staff in July said they believed sexual harassment is a problem on Capitol Hill, while one in six said they had personally been victimized. 

Under current procedures, congressional employees who want to file a complaint have to wait nearly three months before they can officially do so.

[How Congress Deals With Sexual Harassment in the Workplace]

The OOC gives congressional employees up to 180 days after an alleged incident of harassment to request mandatory legal counseling. If they opt to do so, that legal counseling lasts for 30 days. If the victim wants to move forward from there, he or she must next participate in 30 days of mediation, when the employee and the office can confidentially reach a voluntary settlement.

After that two-month process, the employee can request an administrative proceeding before a hearing officer or file a case in federal district court — but only after a 30-day “cooling-off” period after mediation.

Speier’s bill would speed up the process for lodging an official complaint with the Office of Compliance, or OOC, and would require all lawmakers and staffers to complete an annual sexual misconduct training course, sources said.

Lawmakers and staff would also be required every two years to fill out a mandatory survey regarding their experience with sexually inappropriate behavior.

Michigan Democratic Rep. Brenda Lawrence introduced a bill last week that would require every congressional office to enroll employees in training to prevent sexual harassment. 

With her revelation Friday, Speier joined four Democratic senators — Claire McCaskillElizabeth WarrenHeidi Heitkamp and Mazie Hirono — who have recently shared stories of being sexually harassed.

But few staff members have followed suit. That’s no surprise to Kristin Nicholson. She spent two decades working on the Hill before becoming the director of the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University in February. She drew from her experience as a senior staffer to post a series of tweets about why so few people would come forward about harassment in Congress. 

She described the Hill as a “bizarre” workplace, where the boundaries between the personal and the professional are routinely blurred, the young and ambitious happily subject their careers to the older and more powerful, and “a staffer’s existence revolves around the boss.”

Nicholson said in an interview that she was not surprised that more people from the Hill had not come forward. 

“It takes some prominent or brave people to get the ball rolling, and that hasn’t happened yet,” she said. “In that ecosystem, it is something you would hesitate to be extremely public about.”

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