Rep. Jackie Speier (D Calif.) says the current system for reporting sexual harassment in Congress shields offenders and punishes victims. (Clare Major)

Briony Whitehouse was a 19-year-old intern in 2003 when she boarded an elevator in the Russell Senate Office Building with a Republican senator who, she said, groped her until the doors reopened. 

She never reported the incident to her bosses for fear of jeopardizing her career. But she recently tweeted about her experience on Twitter as part of the #MeToo campaign, a social-media phenomenon that has aired thousands of complaints about sexual harassment.

Some of the accounts have called out by name Hollywood moguls, media stars, even a former U.S. president. Other women such as Whitehouse have stopped short of naming harassers. Whitehouse in an interview last week with The Washington Post declined to name the politician who made unwanted advances, convinced that he would retaliate.

“At the time, I didn’t know what to do, so I did nothing at all,” said Whitehouse, who works overseas as a political consultant. “Because this happened so early on for me, I just assumed this was the way things worked and that I’d have to accept it.” 

If Whitehouse had chosen to pursue a complaint against the senator, she would have discovered a process unlike other parts of the federal government or much of the private sector. Her complaint likely would have been thrown out because interns have limited harassment protections under the unique employment law that Congress applies to itself.

Congress makes its own rules about the handling of sexual complaints against members and staff, passing laws exempting it from practices that apply to other employers.

The result is a culture in which some lawmakers suspect harassment is rampant. Yet victims are unlikely to come forward, according to attorneys who represent them.     

Under a law in place since 1995, accusers may file lawsuits only if they first agree to go through months of counseling and mediation. A special congressional office is charged with trying to resolve the cases out of court.

When settlements do occur, members do not pay them from their own office funds, a requirement in other federal agencies. Instead, the confidential payments come out of a special U.S. Treasury fund.

Congressional employees have received small settlements, compared with the amounts some public figures pay out. Between 1997 and 2014, the U.S. Treasury has paid $15.2 million in 235 awards and settlements for Capitol Hill workplace violations, according to the congressional Office of Compliance. The statistics do not break down the exact nature of the violations. 

Like Hollywood, where allegations against movie producer Harvey Weinstein touched off the recent #MeToo campaign, the Capitol Hill environment is dominated by powerful men who can make or break careers. Congress has resisted efforts that could improve the culture such as making anti-harassment training mandatory in their offices.

“It is not a victim-friendly process. It is an institution-protection process,” said Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), who has unsuccessfully pushed to overhaul how harassment cases are handled. “I think we would find that sexual harassment is rampant in the institution. But no one wants to know, because they’d have to do something about it.” 

Troubling stories

Whitehouse was among thousands of women who shared stories of sexual harassment and assault online after the Weinstein allegations grabbed global attention. 

Ally Coll Steele, a Washington lawyer, shared her story about a former Democratic senator grabbing her buttocks at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. She was an 18-year-old intern, and the senator’s wife and staff were standing nearby. 

“I was in the position of having no choice but reacting in a way that was going to make a big deal out of it in front his staff or his wife, or acting like nothing was happening. I chose the latter,” Steele said. 

People she told about the incident said they were sorry it happened but not surprised, she recalled. Her colleagues had described the former senator as “handsy.” 

One former Senate staffer, speaking on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals, said she was repeatedly groped at work events by a younger and more junior male staff member. 

“He would just grab me,” she said. “It happened multiple times. The worst part was my other male colleagues would excuse it. He stayed on Capitol Hill for years.” 

Another former staffer described interning on the Hill at 16 while attending a local high school. The office’s legislative director, a married man in his 40s, began paying attention to her in ways that became increasingly uncomfortable: adding her on AOL Instant Messenger, offering her rides home, saying she resembled his college girlfriend, and ultimately suggesting he pick her up from school so they could have lunch. 

While the man never touched her or made overtly sexual comments, the former staffer said his attention was inappropriate. 

“What 40-something man is taking a 16-year-old woman out to lunch?” she said. 

Power culture

Capitol Hill has long been known as a demanding workplace for young people, trying to make a mark in an adrenaline-fueled Washington power center. Work duties often require personal interactions with members and high-ranking staffers, and success requires that employees demonstrate personal loyalty, political solidarity and professional rapport with colleagues and superiors.

Making claims of harassment or inappropriate advances come at high risk.

“There is a sense that going forward with an allegation like this would be completely the end of any career working for anybody on the Hill — and it undoubtedly would be,” said Debra Katz, an employment attorney in Washington who represents congressional aides in sexual harassment cases.

“We have no doubt that sexual harassment is underreported in Congress, just as all workplace infractions are underreported in Congress,” said Brad Fitch, president and chief executive of the Congressional Management Foundation, a nonprofit organization that helps lawmakers and staff learn to run their offices.

When cases do emerge, they can attract years of unwanted attention, another disincentive for reporting, attorneys say.  

Sex scandals involving current and former lawmakers have been infrequent but steady. A count by The Post shows at least a dozen members have resigned or chosen not to seek reelection in the last 15 years because of extramarital affairs, inappropriate contact online and other sexual misbehavior.

Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) resigned in 2006 after sending sexually explicit online messages to teenage current and former male House pages. The popular House program was eventually disbanded. At the time, Foley apologized “for the conduct that it was alleged that I did.” He did not respond to a request for comment. 

Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.) stepped down in 2010 amid allegations that he had groped and tickled male staffers. At the time, Massa said his actions were not sexual. James D. Doyle, Massa’s attorney, said federal investigations have not found the former congressman “committed any wrongdoing whatsoever.”

In 2015, Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex,) settled a sexual harassment charge brought by his former communications director Lauren Greene, who said he made inappropriate comments “designed to gauge whether [she] was interested in a sexual relationship,” according to her legal complaint. Farenthold denied wrongdoing.

Greene filed the lawsuit after participating in counseling and mediation. Neither she nor Farenthold’s office responded to requests for comment. 

Cases involving high-ranking congressional staffers get far less notice. Female staffers in the office of Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) alleged former chief of staff Kenny West behaved inappropriately toward women. One former female staffer interviewed by the Office of Congressional Ethics said West would play with women’s hair and try to look down their shirts, according to an interview transcript. West was moved into an advisory position before he left Meadows’s office permanently.

West denied inappropriate behavior and said the allegations have hurt him professionally. He said that he is “old-fashioned” and that the situation could best be described as a misunderstanding between him and female aides. 

“There was never any sexual harassment and had there been any by anyone, the congressman, Mrs. Meadows, myself and my wife — we would not tolerate it,” he said in an interview.

Meadows’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Katz said women who are harassed in congressional jobs contact her every few months to learn about their rights.

“We’ve worked with a number of women who, after these experiences, stopped working on Capitol Hill,” Katz said. “They were done. They felt so betrayed.” 

Tangled process

Victims who do seek action face a confusing process under a law known as the Congressional Accountability Act that was put in place in 1995. Sponsored by Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), it imposed a range of civil rights, labor and worker-safety laws on Capitol Hill for the first time.

A scandal involving Sen. Robert Packwood (R-Ore.) and multiple women accusers led to his 1995 resignation and to debate over which labor protections should apply to Congress. Packwood first denied the allegations but later apologized. 

Following the Packwood allegations, a 1993 survey by The Post showed that one-third of female congressional employees responding said they were sexually harassed by members, supervisors, lobbyists or fellow aides.

Grassley’s bill established the 20-person Office of Compliance to adjudicate disputes and handle harassment complaints.

The law gives victims 180 days after the offending incident to initiate complaints. Victims must agree to go through counseling, which take typically takes 30 days. 

After that, victims who want to continue begin 30 days of mediation, which is handled by a neutral mediator. If the problem is still unresolved, they can pursue an OOC administrative hearing or file a federal lawsuit against their harasser. 

The confidential dispute resolution process can be made public only if the case is ruled in the victim’s favor, after it goes through administrative or judicial proceedings.  

The OOC contends that its process has helped resolve “scores of employee disputes” and benefits all sides.

Some advocates believe the pre-lawsuit mediation requirement undercuts victims. The rule contrasts sharply with the rest of the federal government, where mediation is an option but not mandatory for employees to pursue legal action. 

Few staffers seem aware of their rights or the harassment reporting process.  

“A lot of people are confused about it. We’ll get calls from people who work down on the Hill, and they’re not all that clear as to what they should be doing,” said Alan Lescht, an employment attorney in Washington who handles harassment cases involving federal and congressional employees.

The only mandatory training for congressional employees is an ethics program put into place after the 2006 Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal and instruction on cybersecurity. The lack of mandatory anti-harassment training places Congress out of step with the majority of the private sector, according to human-resources experts.

The OOC sends newsletters and regular emails urging chiefs of staff to prioritize staff training and describing how to access resources online. While the office oversees tens of thousands of employees, only about 800 people since 2015 have taken its 20-minute online tutorial on preventing sexual harassment.

Some congressional leaders have been questioned about the culture on Capitol Hill amid a national outcry over allegations of serial harassment by Weinstein.

Grassley told The Post this week that if the law is not effectively accomplishing sexual harassment prevention and anti-discriminatory training, “then it should be revisited.” 

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said members need to take responsibility for anti-harassment training in their own offices. A 2014 effort led by Speier to make training mandatory was defeated, but Pelosi told The Post she supports Speier’s efforts. On Thursday, Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.) introduced a bill to require sexual-harassment training. 

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who has spoken about her own experience with sexual harassment in Congress, said she supports mandatory sexual harassment training for every member of Congress and their staff. 

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) recently said that it would be “naive” to suggest sexual harassment doesn’t happen on Capitol Hill, and that current systems can always be improved. His office declined to offer more details. 

“I do believe that exposing these things can help improve the culture,” Ryan said in an interview on MSNBC. “The more you expose it and the more we can castigate people in society on these things to show that this is not acceptable behavior, I think that’s to the good.” 

Speier said members need to be held more accountable. “It’s an embarrassment,” she said, “and we’ve got to fix it.”

Alice Crites, Kimberly Kindy and Michael Scherer contributed to this report.  

The Washington Post is examining workplace violations on Capitol Hill and the process for reporting them. To contact a reporter, please email michelle.lee@washpost.com, elise.viebeck@washpost.com or kimberly.kindy@washpost.com .