Capitol Hill's #MeToo moment: Laws being drafted to address Congress's 'sexual harassment problem'

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Capitol Hill is where the highest laws of the land are born in the U.S. It’s also where illegal sexual harassment has gone on for years — helped, critics say, by an Old-Boys-club ecosystem and an onerous complaints process that re-traumatizes victims.

No longer, says a group of bipartisan legislators taking aim at the secretive system of filing complaints. For every sexual harassment claim that’s whispered about or silenced in the halls of Congress, lawmakers are proposing a legislative fix, one that has a familiar ring to it.

It’s called the “Me Too” bill.

More officially, it’s the Member and Employee Training and Oversight On (ME TOO) Congress Act.

The bill, which borrows its name from the two-word hashtag #MeToo that spread after a wave of abuse allegations brought down Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, seeks to reform the confidential process for handling sexual complaints against members of Congress and staffers.

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Republican senator Barbara Comstock of Virginia, left, was among the lawmakers who spoke at a hearing this month on sexual harassment on Capitol Hill. (Reuters)

Current rules on Capitol Hill require victims to sign non-disclosure agreements and undergo months of waiting and meetings. 

Long drawn-out complaints process

Even if someone is fortunate enough to receive proper guidance that they can report their experience of harassment to the little-known Office of Compliance, the complainant must endure a month of legal counselling, another month of “mediation” and then a month-long “cooling off” phase first. Only after this 90-day period will the complainant be able to pursue a formal complaint in federal court or an administrative hearing.

In the meantime, victims in some cases would have to face their harassers day-to-day while on the job or during forced “mediation.”

Under the ME TOO Act, changes would include: 

  • Making the mediation phase, 30 days in which the victim has to face mediation with his or her alleged perpetrator or representatives of the employing office, optional.
  • Making legal counselling of the victim, which can last up to 30 days, optional. 
  • Providing a complainant with their own lawyer to face an accused harasser who is assigned a taxpayer-funded congressional attorney.
  • Ending the use of non-disclosure agreements as a condition to filing a claim.
  • Allowing a complainant to work away from an employing office, or remotely, so as not to have to continue facing their alleged harasser on the job.
  • Allowing complainants to file claims anonymously and through an electronic system.
  • Expanding the legislation to protect interns and unpaid staff.

Not supportive of victims

There’s broad agreement that the Office of Compliance involves processes “that are not particularly supportive of victims,” said Kristin Nicholson, who worked on the Hill for 20 years and now serves as director of the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University.

Travis Moore, the founder of TechCongress and a former Hill staffer who has worked with Nicholson to highlight sexual harassment challenges in Congress, said he’s recently heard from a dozen women about their experiences, “and none of them have gone through the Office of Compliance process.”

He cited a survey by CQ Roll Call, a media outlet that covers Congress, that found 90 per cent of staffers didn’t even know the office existed.

For those who did, Moore said, “they didn’t have confidence” in how the dispute-resolution process would remedy their complaints. “They didn’t just ignore it. There were some women who raised the issue in their office, but decided not to go to the Office of Compliance.”

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New York Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is pushing legislation aimed at addressing sexual harassment around Capitol Hill. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)

One change already in effect in the Senate after pressure from bipartisan legislators is a call for compulsory sexual harassment training. This month, a bipartisan Senate resolution was pushed through to make such training mandatory, while lawmakers in the House have also called for adopting the requirement.

“A lot of Americans were surprised to learn it wasn’t mandatory,” Nicholson said. “That seems to be a very simple and clear step they can and should be taking quickly.”

In recent weeks, two Democrats — Minnesota senator Al Franken and Michigan representative John Conyers — have been accused of sexual misconduct. Franken has since apologized; Conyers stepped down from his role on the House Judiciary Committee.

Interns being groped

Those accounts have been amplified by reports about interns being groped, legislators being touched inappropriately by colleagues on the House floor, lewd remarks, and a former aide instructed by a member of Congress to “twirl” in his office as he ogled her.

“I know what it’s like to keep these things hidden deep down inside,” California Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier said in a YouTube video posted last month, declaring a need to overhaul the system. As a congressional staffer years ago, she said, “the chief of staff held my face, kissed me and stuck his tongue in my mouth.”