Wherever Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) goes these days, she’s stopped by women who thank her for speaking out about sexual harassment on Capitol Hill.
The two-term congresswoman from Northern Virginia sits on the House committee charged with reforming a system that made it possible for members to settle complaints anonymously and with taxpayer dollars.
But she drew national attention two weeks ago during a committee hearing when she recounted a story she had heard about a young Hill staffer who abruptly quit after a congressman exposed himself.
“I do think this is a watershed moment,” she said in an interview Tuesday in her Capitol office. “What happened in Hollywood, what happened in media, in other industries sort of broke it all open that it didn’t matter where you came down politically, that a predator is a predator.”
Comstock, who has been making the rounds of the Sunday talk shows, is working across party lines to co-sponsor a resolution with Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) that would require members and staff to complete mandatory anti-harassment training. The full House is expected to vote on the resolution Wednesday.
Comstock and Speier have called the resolution a first step toward amending the process victims use to report harassment. They want to overhaul the complaint process laid out in the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995, which will be the subject of a Dec. 7 hearing in the Committee on House Administration.
The current system has allowed sexual harassment to continue without consequences for the perpetrators, Speier said.
Speier introduced the Me Too Congress Act, or the Member and Employee Training and Oversight On Congress Act, to allow complaints to be made anonymously and prohibit nondisclosure agreements as a condition of initiating a complaint.
It would also take final approval of settlements out of the hands of committee leaders, who currently must sign off on these agreements.
“This is a cultural revolution,” Speier said in a phone interview.
The issue comes as Comstock faces a tough reelection in 2018 and is working to cement a brand distinct from President Trump, who polls show is unpopular with the suburban female voters who are a significant voting bloc in her Northern Virginia district.
Although Democrats have criticized her for not denouncing more of Trump’s actions, Comstock was among the first lawmakers to call for then-candidate Trump to drop out in October 2016 after he was heard in the “Access Hollywood” video bragging about groping women. Since then, a tidal wave of stories about sexual abuse and harassment has washed through the media, Hollywood and Capitol Hill, implicating a variety of powerful men from television host Charlie Rose and journalist Mark Halperin to Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and actor Kevin Spacey.
Congress is grappling with what to do if Roy Moore, the Senate candidate accused of initiating sexual contact with teenagers as young as 14, wins an Alabama special election next month.
Former staffers of Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) have accused him of unwanted sexual advances, and Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) has apologized after a woman alleged that he groped her during a 2006 United Service Organizations tour.
For all these reasons, Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), who also sits on the House Administration Committee and is co-sponsoring the Speier-Comstock resolution, likened the moment to a radical culture shift.
“It should just be an unthinkable thing,” he said.
Asked about Conyers, the longest-serving member of Congress, Raskin said the age of looking the other way is over.
“That is going to be a very painful process for people who are used to the old norms,” he said in a phone interview. “Some people’s careers are going to end in a much different way that they had perhaps expected.”
Comstock said she and former Democratic congresswoman Donna F. Edwards of Maryland commiserated about the “everyday sexism” and particular challenges of being the only women in their state’s House delegations. Comstock said her colleagues in the regional delegation treat her differently than her male predecessors, something she attributes to subtle sexism.
Yet Comstock, a former congressional intern, staffer and counsel before becoming a member herself in 2015, said she was shocked to read media reports about years of abuse that Fox News chief executive Roger Ailes, who died this year, perpetrated against women she knew, Laurie Luhn and Kellie Boyle.
Stories of sexual harassment on Capitol Hill are particularly disheartening for the congresswoman who started a summer program to mentor young women in her district.
“You come in, you’re excited, you’ve been in the top of your class, and you’re idealistic and you’ve worked and volunteered, and now you’re here to work for your congressman, who’s an icon,” Comstock said. “And you’re told when you go home, ‘Well, everyone knows any young woman in that office is there because you’re sleeping with him.’ ”
Before the hearing earlier this month, Comstock called Dorena Bertussi, who filed the first successful harassment complaint in 1988.
“She just was really strong and inspiring to talk to in real life,” she said. “Wow, 30 years ago, that would be hard to have stood up and done all that and faced that.”
Comstock said she hopes to be able to represent women who have faced abuse but don’t yet feel comfortable coming forward.
“For the people who can’t fight back, I feel I can,” she said. “For the person who’s afraid to say it, I can be their voice.”