Congressional Sex Harassment Lawsuits Costing Millions
Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.
It’s unlikely the public will ever truly know how many women in politics have been targets of sexual harassment, or how many lawmakers are sexual predators, but the tip of the iceberg has emerged in recent weeks. Alabama congressional aspirant Roy Moore has been accused of sexual contact in his past by a steady trickle of women who at the time were very young girls, and Minnesota Senator Al Franken allegedly groped and kissed a woman without consent. On Tuesday, California Democratic Representative Jackie Speier testified before the House Administration Committee that two current male members of Congress, a Democrat and a Republican, “have engaged in sexual harassment.” In the same hearing, Barbara Comstock, a Republican representative from Virginia, described how another sitting congressman had exposed himself to a female member of his staff.
“This member asked a staffer to bring them over some materials to their residence,” Comstock stated, according to CBS News. “And a young staffer, it was a young woman, went there and was greeted with a member in a towel. It was a male, who then invited her in. At that point, he decided to expose himself. She left, and then she quit her job.”
Those accounts represent a fraction of incidents of sexual abuse and harassment that women in politics are now speaking out about. In a video, Speier described how decades earlier, a congressional chief of staff had “held my face, kissed me and stuck his tongue in my mouth.” The New York Times recently conducted more than “50 interviews [with] lawyers, lobbyists and former aides” who told the outlet “sexual harassment has long been an occupational hazard for those operating in Washington politics.”
Among those who spoke to the Times on the record was a former Capitol Hill staffer who described a Republican senior aide’s attempt to tug open her dress one night in a bar, as he asked why she insisted on “holding out.” Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office for 17 years, says that in the early aughts a D.C. politician “propositioned her for sex” in the midst of a working dinner. Another woman who has since departed her job as a legislative aide told the outlet that “a congressman grabbed her backside, then winked as he walked away.” Allegations of sexual assault by male politicians have been made by women lawmakers and political staffers in Illinois, Kansas, Rhode Island and Oregon, according to the Washington Post. In California, an open letter signed by nearly 140 women “ranging from legislators to lobbyists” detailed sexual harassment alongside “promises, or threats” to ensure they kept quiet about their mistreatment.
The United States Congress Office of Compliance has paid $15.2 million to victims of workplace harassment between 1997 and 2014. That figure, which is made up of taxpayer dollars, includes sexual harassment claims, along with payments to victims of racial, ethnic, religious and other forms of discrimination. The OOC doesn’t offer a breakdown on settlement numbers by complaint type, though Rep. Speier told CNN she is looking into ways to find those specific figures.
But most cases of workplace sexual harassment and assault in political circles, just like those in Hollywood, Silicon Valley and offices around the country, go unreported. In part, because victims are often justifiably concerned their stories may not be believed, or that they may be subject to career-killing retaliatory tactics by the men involved. For women who work on Capitol Hill, reporting involves not just coping with the outsized challenges of implicating powerful men, but a complaint filing system so inefficient that victims are dissuaded from the outset.
“If someone wants to form a complaint they have to go through a month of legal counseling…Then they go through mediation. And then they have to go through a one-month ‘cooling off’ period, all the while they are still required to work in that office that was a hostile work environment,” Speier told CNN during an interview Tuesday. “By the way…the general counsel of the House is representing the harasser. The victim has no counsel, no support.”
“The system is so stacked. They don’t want people to come forward,” Debra Katz, a D.C.-based attorney who deals with civil rights, sexual harassment and whistleblower cases, told the Times. In an interview with Rollcall, Katz also pointed to social and political reasons that victims avoid filing. “There’s a lot of partisan pressure, too, of don’t do this to the party, don’t do this to our leadership, don’t embarrass us.”
When victims do take the proper steps to document harassment, the lengthy amount of time involved and confusing fine print can make the process feel like a retraumatizing exercise in futility. M. Reese Everson, a former fellow at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, attempted to file a complaint with the Office of Compliance against a congressman in 2013. Because she worked on the Hill as a fellow instead of a full-time employee, the office turned her away, saying the matter was beyond its purview. The Times reports that with no other viable option, Everson filed complaints with D.C. local government, “where they have languished for over two years.” Tracy Manzer, Speier’s communications director, told CNN that 80 percent of those who have contacted the congresswoman’s office have declined to report their cases to the Office of Compliance.
“It is like, the place where complaints go to die,” a former Senate aide who also tried to file a report with the Office of Compliance told CNN. “It was like I was talking to a black hole of people who didn’t care.”
The Times notes that some of the women it spoke with had never been made aware the Office of Compliance existed. In fact, a 2016 Rollcall survey of female congressional staffers found 40 percent of respondents said they believed sexual harassment was a serious issue in Capitol Hill, and one out of six surveyed said they had experienced harassment firsthand. Yet almost none of the women were aware there was an office to handle their complaints. “Only 10 percent of the women who responded…said there was a structure in place for reporting allegations of harassment on Capitol Hill,” Rollcall indicated, “suggesting either that they aren’t aware of the Office of Compliance or that they find it inadequate.”
On Wednesday, Rep. Speier and New York Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand introduced companion bills in the House and Senate that aim to change the culture on Capitol Hill, and make it easier for victims of harassment to have their complaints recognized and addressed. The bill is called the Member and Employee Training and Oversight On Congress Act, or #MeToo Congress Act, a reference to the social media campaign for survivors of sexual harassment and abuse. A press announcement by Speier indicates the legislation will “require mandatory annual training for members and staff, implement climate surveys to show the true scope of this problem, afford interns access to the same resources and protections as full-time staff, end forced mediation, and overhaul the process by which congressional staffers report sexual harassment.”
For now, in the absence of a competent response system for sexual harassment allegations, women who work in government—like women in every other industry—rely on word-of-mouth warnings from colleagues. Among a number of infuriating consequences of pervasive sexual harassment, female staffers learn to navigate spaces and limit their lives to avoid run-ins with potential harassers. Claire McCaskill, now a Democratic senator from Missouri, recently described how early in her career, she “learned to avoid elevators because elevators were when you were captured.” Several outlets reported on the “creep list,” a name women staffers used to describe the Hill’s most well-known predators and prolific harassers.
More than half a dozen interviewees independently named one California congressman for pursuing female staffers; another half dozen pointed to a Texas congressman for engaging in inappropriate behavior. CNN is not naming either of those lawmakers because the stories are unverified.
“Amongst ourselves, we know,” a former Senate aide told the outlet about serial harassers. “There is a certain code amongst us, we acknowledge among each other what occurs.”
“The Congress of the United States should be the one work environment where people are treated with respect, where there isn’t a hostile work environment,” Speier told the Times. “And frankly, it’s just the opposite. It’s probably among the worst.”
Kali Holloway is a senior writer and the associate editor of media and culture at AlterNet.