The House on Wednesday adopted by voice vote a resolution that would require all House employees — including all members — to be trained annually on workplace harassment and discrimination.
The bipartisan measure comes on the heels of allegations against Democratic Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the longest serving member in Congress, and Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota. As those cases work through the congressional ethics process, there’s a renewed focus on how sexual harassment can be reported on Capitol Hill.
“We must make it easier for women to come forward, provide them an advocate or counsel,” said sponsor Barbara Comstock, a Virginia Republican, during a brief floor debate. “We need to have a prohibition on any kind of member-staff relationship with subordinates; no taxpayer settlements, and transparency and accountability about who are the harassers.”
Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier of California, who has said she was harassed as a House staffer, said there has been no effective check on such behavior under the chamber’s current reporting procedures. She has been outspoken in calling for an overhaul.
“Unfortunately, due to the system that Congress created to protect itself from being exposed, there has been no accountability,” she said. “It’s now clear that this misguided attempt to protect the institution is instead harming it and leaving victims in its wake.”
Ryan: ‘We Will Not Tolerate’ Sexual Harassment in Congress
Sexual harassment training has not been mandated in the House, though the executive branch requires it. The Senate passed a bipartisan resolution on Nov. 9 requiring such training for all senators and staff by early January. The Senate resolution came after nearly 1,500 former staffers signed a letter to congressional leadership saying the processes are “inadequate and need reform.”
“The fact that some people walking these halls are subjected to a threatening or hostile work environment when they came here to serve their country, to serve their ideas — that is wrong. That is a disgrace,” said Speaker Paul D. Ryan at a press conference earlier Wednesday.
Congress needs to focus on putting into place a “platinum standard” when it comes to preventing and dealing with sexual harassment on the Hill, Democratic Caucus Chairman Joseph Crowley of New York said at a separate press conference, when asked whether Conyers should resign.
The harassment reporting process is currently handled by the Office of Compliance and requires 60 days of counseling and mediation before an accuser can request a hearing or file a federal district court case. Interns and congressional fellows cannot use the office to report harassment under current policy.
Ryan said House Administration Chairman Gregg Harper, a Mississippi Republican, is holding hearings and working on updates to the Congressional Accountability Act that would overhaul the process for complaints to be made and reviewed.
Democratic Leaders Decline to Call for Conyers to Resign
At a hearing held by the committee earlier this month, Speier said the reporting process must be replaced. “The current system may have been OK in the Dark Ages, but it is not appropriate in the 21st century.”
Democratic Caucus Vice Chairwoman Linda T. Sánchez, also of California, said the caucus had a “fruitful” conversation about overhauling the process so that sexual harassment allegations can be raised in a way that is fair for both the complainant and the accuser.
“You don’t want character assassinations, nor do you want victims who don’t get their day in court,” she said.
The Office of Compliance will get time to develop and implement the proposed training program. Under the resolution, current members and employees in the 115th Congress would have to be trained within 180 days of the beginning of the second session in January.
Lindsey McPherson and Daniel Peake contributed to this report.