Congress Should Lead, Not Follow, On Protecting Victims Of Sexual Harassment

The current system for addressing complaints is ineffective and cumbersome.

Amid the mushrooming revelations stemming from the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal, the spotlight has shifted to another high profile industry with a power imbalance: Congress.

According to a February 2017 Roll Call story, four in 10 women on congressional staff said that sexual harassment is a problem on Capitol Hill. “One in six said they personally had been victimized.” But unlike other federal agencies and private workplaces, in Congress there is no consistent system in place for responding to and preventing sexual harassment and assault.

In 1995, the Congressional Accountability Act was passed after a series of scandals rocked the halls of Congress. The law requires Congress to follow many workplace laws that other employers must follow, including those addressing discrimination. The law created the Office of Compliance (“OOC”) to help members and congressional staffers understand their rights and responsibilities, but its authority only goes so far. Each Congressional office operates somewhat independently, with its own rules and procedures. Sexual harassment training is not mandatory for members or their staff, although OOC has urged otherwise for years. There’s no central HR department on the Hill, making it harder for individuals to know where to go to report harassment or assault or seek assistance.

As a recent letter from former Hill staffers pointed out, few people know that they can turn to the Office of Compliance if they are the victim of sexual harassment or assault, even though harassment remains a longstanding and significant problem in Congress. When staffers do report harassment to the office, they must navigate a labyrinth of obstacles in order to seek justice, as the Washington Post recently reported.

First, employees must submit to a “dispute resolution process” that is overseen by the Office of Compliance. OOC does not have the authority to conduct an investigation. Instead, the OOC process requires employees who have experienced harassment to first participate in 30 days of counseling. The requirement is imposed on the victim — not the alleged perpetrator. Employees must then submit to a 30-day mediation program where the parties meet separately or jointly with a mediator appointed by the Office of Compliance in an attempt to come to a “resolution” regarding the alleged violation. As the Washington Post noted, “[w]hen settlements do occur, members do not pay them from their own office funds, a requirement in other federal agencies. Instead, the confidential payments come out of a special U.S. Treasury fund.” Thus there is no accountability for the members or their offices, and no incentive to change behavior. And only after fulfilling mandatory counseling and mediation, followed by a 30 day “cooling off” period, may an employee press a claim in a judicial or administrative forum.

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), who has introduced legislation that would require all that members of Congress and staff undergo sexual harassment training every year, said that the entire process “is not a victim-friendly process. It is an institution-protection process.” Many survivors of sexual harassment and assault never report because the risk of retaliation and job loss is too great. A procedure rife with delay, a lack of accountability, and no real remedy provides even less incentive to come forward.

Congress can take several immediate steps to reform its ineffective and cumbersome system. First, the House of Representatives should pass Rep. Speier’s legislation mandating training. A Senate companion bill introduced by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) passed last week. It would be a first, but important step, in showing that Congress is serious about developing an effective, consistent prevention and response policy regarding sexual harassment.

Second, Congress should revise the statute that governs the Office of Compliance to remove existing barriers to reporting, and strengthen the process for addressing complaints in a manner that results in real consequences for people who discriminate and harass.

Public Citizen has been fighting for more than 40 years for an open and accessible court system for all. National Women’s Law Center has worked for forty-five years to protect and promote equality and opportunity for women and families. Congressional staffers deserve nothing less.

Maya Raghu is Director of Workplace Equality & Senior Counsel at the National Women’s Law Center.

Remington A. Gregg is Counsel for Civil Justice and Consumer Rights at Public Citizen.