Dorena Bertussi, who in 1988 filed the first successful sexual harassment complaint against a member of Congress, sat in silence in the second row of a House hearing Thursday, where lawmakers grappled with the same problem that she called to attention nearly 30 years ago.
“It’s very frustrating,” said Bertussi, 65, after the two-hour hearing. “It has been 28 friggin’ years . . . and they are just now trying to figure out how to do something that is so important and so critical to all staff here.”
Congress is facing increasing pressure to open up the secretive system it uses to handle sexual harassment cases brought against its members and its use of taxpayer money over the past two decades to quietly resolve such disputes. And now, for the first time in 20 years, Congress is weighing potential changes to the law that governs the current process, the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act.
Several members have proposed bills that would rewrite parts of the law, responding to a public outcry over sexual harassment and use of taxpayer funds in resolving complaints. The Committee on House Administration, which oversees daily operations in the lower chamber, is reviewing potential proposals to hold lawmakers accountable and empower victims, including tracking every settlement made informally and formally.
“It’s ridiculous to me that there is no tracking of incidents. That is absolutely ridiculous and completely unacceptable,” said Bertussi, who attended the hearing as a guest of Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) after the congresswoman called her to hear about her experience.
Employment-law experts in Congress and in the private sector answered questions from lawmakers about changing the culture around how sexual-harassment complaints are handled on Capitol Hill.
Among other things, they discussed proposals to create a victim advocate or ombudsman role when claimants file complaints and whether to eliminate a “cooling-off” period that requires claimants to wait 30 days after mandatory mediation to proceed with their complaint.
Susan Tsui Grundmann, executive director of the Office of Compliance, asked lawmakers to provide additional investigative authority to the attorneys in her office, which carries out the required counseling and mediation process for legislative employees filing workplace claims. Under the current law, the office can investigate certain employment claims but not sexual harassment claims.
Grundmann also asked lawmakers to review confidentiality requirements under the current law, which would allow her office to disclose necessary information that allows congressional leaders to spot problematic behavior or individuals.
Settling cases does not in itself indicate wrongdoing. But under the current system, there is not one lawmaker or committee in the House that is responsible for tracking informal and formal settlements lawmakers reach to resolve potential or existing sexual harassment claims. The lack of disclosure keeps congressional leaders in the dark about behavior by members or staff that might be stopped with earlier intervention.
Both the House and Senate have approved policy changes to require periodic anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training for members and aides. Mandatory training is “the floor, not the ceiling,” Grundmann told the House panel.
Rep. Gregg Harper (R-Miss.), chairman of the House Administration Committee, said the committee will review recommendations and feedback from the hearing to determine necessary updates to House policy and proposals to amend the Congressional Accountability Act.
“We have a great responsibility, going forward, to get this right,” Harper said. “One case of sexual harassment is one too many.”