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Former congressional staffers call for policy changes to address sexual harassment

The U.S. Capitol shortly before sunset in Washington on May 17. (Zach Gibson/Reuters)

Add former congressional aides to the chorus of voices pressuring Congress to crack down on sexual harassment of members and staff.

More than 1,000 former staff members have signed an open letter urging the House and Senate to require anti-harassment training and overhaul the process for filing complaints, after news reports documented the persistence of lewd comments and unwanted touching on Capitol Hill.

The letter, which had 1,034 names attached Wednesday afternoon, endorses mandatory training for both lawmakers and staff and canceling the requirement that victims undergo counseling and mediation in the process of reporting misbehavior.

“We believe that Congress’s policies for preventing sexual harassment and adjudicating complaints of harassment are inadequate and need reform,” the letter stated.

The effort to rally support among former aides comes as Capitol Hill reckons with patterns of sexual harassment and assault that have persisted for decades. In the wake of the allegations of misconduct that toppled movie producer Harvey Weinstein, some lawmakers have started discussing ways to address similar misbehavior among lawmakers and staff.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), with several Democrats, introduced a resolution Tuesday to mandate training for members and staff in the Senate and implement a regular survey to gauge the extent of sexual harassment on the Hill.

How Congress plays by different rules on sexual harassment and misconduct

Travis Moore, a former legislative director for Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), said he launched the signature-gathering initiative Monday by posting it to Facebook. After that, he said, “it just took off.”

“This issue has been a top concern of mine for more than a year. A good friend confided in me that her superior made inappropriate comments to her. It was a lewd comment,” Moore said Wednesday in an interview. He declined to name his friend out of respect for her privacy.

“The way it was brushed off by her office was really offensive and inappropriate. The incident itself was really hard but the most difficult thing was how the office just brushed it off and then questioned her motives. It speaks to the culture in some offices,” he said.

Kristin Nicholson, former chief of staff to Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) who helped craft and circulate the letter, said she and Moore were likely to send it Thursday.

“It really struck a nerve. It’s circulating on its own,” Moore said.

In the House, several Democratic members have floated bills to mandate anti-harassment training or increase protections for workers on Capitol Hill. Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) urged representatives Friday to undergo training themselves and make it a requirement for staff.

Ryan has also ordered the Committee on House Administration to review policies and training materials aimed at stopping sexual harassment. The panel will hold a hearing on the issue Nov. 14.

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