Vance McAllister scandal is a reminder that harassment policies vary on Capitol Hill


This Nov. 21, 2013, photo shows then-newly-elected Rep. Vance McAllister (R-La.) waiting to be sworn in on Capitol Hill in Washington. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Rep. Vance McAllister (R-La.) hasn’t been seen in Washington this week since news broke that he’d been caught on camera apparently kissing a staffer, a district scheduler, who has since left his office.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) finally heard from McAllister on Thursday morning and gave reporters his assessment of McAllister’s situation: “He’s got decisions he’s got to make.”

Neither McAllister nor the aide has spoken publicly about the specifics of the incident or their relationship, and there have been no suggestions to date that the incident caught on video amounted to harassment. But his silence has fed assumptions and rumors, and the case of “the kissing congressman” — as McAllister has become known on Capitol Hill and social media — has served as a reminder that even though Congress writes laws that apply across the country, they aren’t always enforced the same way on Capitol Hill.

Congress and its roughly 30,000 employees operate under different rules than the rest of the federal government when it comes to sexual harassment and other employment laws.

Unlike federal agencies and most of the private sector, there is no blanket policy requiring sexual harassment training for new House and Senate employees. There are no placards posted in common areas reminding workers of the rules. Some staffers fear the repercussions of filing formal complaints. And few House and Senate aides this week could recall sexual harassment policies being discussed in the office.

In a video obtained by "The Ouachita Citizen," Rep. Vance McAllister (R-La.) is allegedly seen kissing a female member of his district office staff last December. The congressman has since issued an apology saying, "There's no doubt I've fallen short and I'm asking for forgiveness.” (The Ouachita Citizen)

While a Senate employment office offers regularly scheduled training courses for new employees, there is no such schedule in the House. Many House offices distribute employee handbooks written by the committee overseeing House operations, but myriad policies apply in Senate offices.

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) this week bemoaned the patchwork policies, laxly enforced, by her colleagues. An outspoken advocate for gender equality, Speier said the McAllister incident was her tipping point. After years of similar cases involving former Reps. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), Mark Souder (R-Ind.) and Eric Massa (D-N.Y.) — who all left office amid accusations of inappropriate behavior with staffers — Speier unveiled a measure that would require all lawmakers and their staffs to attend mandatory sexual harassment training once a year.

“Sixty percent of companies in this country already require this kind of training for their employees. So why should we be any different?” she asked.

Speier has been a leading advocate for changes in how the Pentagon handles allegations of sexual assault and rape. “I’ve been on to that issue for a long time, and I thought, ‘Well, here I am kind of throwing stones at the Department of Defense for their conduct and maybe we need to look at our own glass house,’ ” she said.

It’s unclear what kind of support Speier might attract. In the meantime, staffers in her Washington and California offices are scheduled to take a “sensitivity course” on April 28. Her office’s anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies are drawn from language written by the House Committee on Administration, which publishes on its Web site a model employee handbook used by many offices. Top House leaders, including Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) use all or most of the handbook, as do hundreds of other lawmakers.

The handbook states that the offices “will not tolerate” making employment decisions based on “race, sex, age, religion, disability, color, national origin, military status” and also bars acting in a “hostile, offensive, intimidating or demeaning environment.”

Boehner has spoken publicly and privately of his concerns in the past. During the 2010 midterm election season, news reports said that he had privately warned colleagues that late-night partying with female lobbyists or staffers might become a “distraction” from the GOP’s goal of retaking the House. More recently, he’s suggested that House Republicans just aren’t very sensitive when it comes to women’s issues and he confirmed that some members of his caucus had sought guidance on how better to talk to female constituents.

In the Senate, the office of Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) gives new employees and interns a handbook that explains that sexual harassment can include “sex-oriented verbal ‘kidding,’ ‘teasing,’ jokes, or suggestive or lewd remarks” as well as “demands for sexual favors; unwanted hugging or kissing; and displaying derogatory or pornographic posters, cartoons, drawings, or male or female pinups.”

Aides to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) didn’t return requests for comment. Several other Senate offices said they use similar policies and handbooks.

Congressional employees who think they’ve been unfairly fired, sexually harassed or otherwise discriminated against in the workplace have but one formal avenue: They must take their complaints to the Office of Compliance, a nonpartisan office that mediates, arbitrates and, in rare cases, awards damages. House and Senate offices are formally represented during any proceedings by attorneys from their respective employment counsel offices.

If an employee files a formal complaint and isn’t satisfied with the results of mediation, the appeal is heard by a hearing officer, not an administrative law judge, as is the case with federal employees. The employee can also file suit in civil court, though that rarely happens.

“It’s a closed process and one without a lot of teeth to it,” said Debra D’Agostino, a lawyer with the Washington-based Federal Practice Group, who has represented congressional employees in such cases.

Despite that criticism, Hill staffers have far more protections now than they did prior to 1995, when Congress was exempt from a variety of labor laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act and some civil rights provisions. As part of its Contract with America, Republicans passed reforms in the Congressional Accountability Act that held the institution to many of the same standards as the rest of the federal government and private-sector companies.

Still, few congressional employees actually bring formal complaints against their bosses and co-workers: According the Office of Compliance’s report for fiscal 2012 — the most recent data available — only six complaints were made by congressional employees working in a House member’s office and only one in a senator’s office. The office settled 12 cases and paid out a total of $426,539 in fiscal 2012. That’s down from a recent high in fiscal 2007, when the office settled 25 cases for a total of $4.05 million.

Far more complaints on Capitol Hill stem from other offices with larger staffs, like the Capitol Police (36) and the Architect of the Capitol (31). Officials in those offices have said in the past that complaints run higher in their offices because employees are encouraged to use the formal mediation process if they have a conflict.

The intense culture of loyalty fostered in congressional offices, staffers and legal experts say, makes it far more likely that an employee would either ignore illegalities or simply seek employment elsewhere.

Debra Katz, another Washington-based lawyer who also has handled dozens of cases of congressional employees — including former Massa staffers — said many of her clients believe that filing formal complaints could be “career suicide” because doing so could upset bosses and spoil chances of climbing the career ladder.

“People who are on Capitol Hill correctly know that they if they don’t have a very solid reference from their boss, they’re not going anywhere,” she said. “It’s just not a good system.”

Heil is co-author of The Post’s Reliable Source column.

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
Emily Heil is the co-author of the Reliable Source and previously helped pen the In the Loop column with Al Kamen.
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