House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) announced Tuesday the House will adopt a policy change to make anti-harassment training mandatory for all members and staff.
After a stunning hearing Tuesday morning where lawmakers acknowledged sexual harassment is a pervasive problem on Capitol Hill, Ryan released a statement saying that the hearing was “another important step in our efforts to combat sexual harassment and ensure a safe workplace.”
“Going forward, the House will adopt a policy of mandatory anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training for all Members and staff. Our goal is not only to raise awareness, but also make abundantly clear that harassment in any form has no place in this institution,” Ryan said in the statement.
Ryan’s office has not yet provided details on what the policy change will be. While there are several bills that have been introduced or are in the works to require training in the House, none of them have yet moved forward.
The House Administration Committee, which oversees daily operations in the House, acknowledged in the Tuesday morning hearing that anti-harassment training is a necessary “first step” to fixing the sexual-harassment problem on Capitol Hill.
At Tuesday’s hearing, members publicly came to terms with sexual harassment as a pervasive problem on Capitol Hill. Female lawmakers aired tantalizing details, albeit without naming names, of unwanted sexual comments and advances taking place in their midst.
“This is about a member, who is here [in Congress] now. I don’t know who it is, but somebody who I trust told me this situation,” Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) said at the hearing.
The male member tricked a young female staffer into meeting him at his residence, Comstock said. When the staffer arrived, he greeted her in a towel, then exposed himself, she said. The staffer left the house and subsequently quit her Hill job, she said.
Harassers have propositioned themselves to staff members by asking: “Are you going to be a good girl?” Some have exposed their genitals to victims. Others have grabbed victims by their private parts on the House floor, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) said.
“In fact, there are two members of Congress, Republican and Democrat, right now, who serve, who have not been subject to review but have engaged in sexual harassment,” said Speier, who has been pushing for years to make anti-harassment training a requirement.
Speier said her office has been "inundated" with calls and meetings with former and current staff members, both female and male, who have been subjected to inappropriate and possibly illegal sexual advances. These calls came after Speier, who has publicly described being forcibly kissed by a then-chief of staff when she was a congressional employee, launched a #MeTooCongress campaign to draw attention to sexual harassment on the Hill.
“All they ask in return as staff members is to be able to work in a hostile-free environment,” Speier said. “They want the system fixed, and the perpetrators held accountable.”
Some female aides have expressed concern that congressional offices will simply stop hiring women to prevent sexual harassment, said Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.). Gloria Lett, counsel for the Office of House Employment Counsel who testified at the hearing, confirmed she has also heard similar concerns. When she does, she reminds them that gender discrimination is illegal, Lett said.
Lawmakers in recent weeks have come under pressure to improve the workplace culture on the Hill amid reports from multiple news outlets, including The Washington Post, of lewd comments, unwanted sexual advances and other examples of sexual misconduct that have plagued Congress for decades. More than 1,500 former congressional employees have signed a letter urging Congress to require anti-harassment training and to overhaul the reporting process, which advocates say is stacked against the victim and designed to protect the institution.
Unlike most of the private sector and the executive branch, anti-harassment training is not required of the legislative branch. Those who choose to report allegations face a complicated process that involves up to 30 days of a counseling period where they are educated on their rights and options and then a mandatory mediation process before the accuser can bring a case in an administrative hearing or in federal court.
Last week, the Senate for the first time in its history required members and their aides to receive anti-harassment training. The Office of Compliance and the Office of House Employment Counsel currently provide training upon request.
“It’s apparent that mandatory training is a necessary first step to improving the House’s process to address sexual harassment in the workplace,” said Rep. Gregg Harper (R-Miss.), chairman of the House Administration Committee.
Mediations for employment claims that the Office of House Employment Counsel handles “overwhelmingly” involve claims between staff members and “very rarely” are between a staffer and a member of Congress, said Lett, of the Office of House Employment Counsel.
Barbara Childs Wallace, chairwoman of the Office of Compliance’s board of directors, said congressional employees generally are not aware of their rights, whether they should report sexual harassment claims or even that the office exists. She said mandatory training is a necessary first step in improving the Hill’s workplace culture but that more needs to be done.
By law, the Office of Compliance creates posters that outline employee rights, yet few offices actually display the posters in either their Washington or district offices, according to Childs Wallace.
Moreover, individual congressional offices and their leaders need to set an example of appropriate behavior, she said.
“Leadership within each office is also important, and letting the employees know where they can go to complain is vitally important. But mandatory training is one very important component of trying to stop this,” Childs Wallace said.
Harper said the committee will review other recommendations made during the hearing to determine what other resources or changes should be made.
“This type of behavior cannot be tolerated. I believe that raising the awareness today, we should set the standard of proper conduct in the workplace, and I hope this is the first step to getting there,” Harper said.
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