Analysis

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

A new bill introduced this month seeks to reform Capitol Hill’s confidential process for handling sexual complaints against members of Congress and staffers.

Bipartisan effort to wipe out harassment complaints process that involves non-disclosure agreement, long waits

Democratic California representative Jackie Speier waits to testify before a House Administration hearing on preventing sexual harassment in the Congressional workplace on Capitol Hill in Washington on Nov. 14. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

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.

Republican Rep. 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."

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."

Barbara Comstock, a Republican member from Virginia, told a hearing this month that a male lawmaker "who is here now" in Congress requested that a young female staffer bring paperwork to his home, at which point he answered the door in a towel and exposed himself. The female staffer quit shortly after.

A recent survey of congressional staff by CQ Roll Call found that 40 per cent of female respondents agree that sexual harassment is a problem in Congress.

Calls for an overhaul

Nicholson co-authored a letter calling for an overhaul of the complaints reporting process. It received 1,500 signatures from former staff this month. What's clear, she wrote in an op-ed, is that Congress has a "sexual harassment problem." 

Far more tangled, though, is the current policy for dealing with complaints. Those rules require that anybody who wants to make a "request for counselling" must do so within 180 days of the alleged incident of abuse to start the process through the Office of Compliance. 

Sen. Al Franken returns to his office after speaking to the media on Capitol Hill in Washington on Monday. (Associated Press)

Victims first must sign confidentiality agreements. They might ultimately wait 90 days — split between a month of counselling, a month of mediation and a month-long "cooling down" period — before they're able to decide whether to go forward to have a claim adjudicated.

"Those kinds of barriers can really discourage people from bothering at all," Nicholson said. "It can be a very antagonistic process and can have a chilling effect on people wanting to come forward."

While the Washington Post revealed that $15 million US  had been spent over the past decade to settle general harassment and discrimination cases, another proposal in the ME TOO Act would require a legislator's office to pay any settlements. 

BuzzFeed News reports that the office of Rep. John Conyers paid a woman over $27,000 US to settle a sexual harassment complaint that is covered by a confidentiality agreement. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

In a statement, Representative Tulsi Gabbard said it was "outrageous" that taxpayers would have to foot the bill for offending lawmakers' harassment settlements, "while keeping the names of these predators secret."

The ME TOO Act would require cases in which settlements are made to be published on the Office of Compliance website. The reports would include the name of the employing office as well as the financial award. It's the kind of change that Nicholson hopes will hit elected officials and harassers where they hurt.

"Look, these are members of Congress," she said. "They're elected officials. And public perception is everything."

About the Author

Matt Kwong

Reporter

Matt Kwong is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong