WASHINGTON — As a wave of well-known names have been accused of sexual harassment and sexual assault in recent weeks, some members of Congress are trying to extend the new awareness about sexual misconduct to congressional offices as lawmakers past and present are coming forward with their own stories.
Former Reps. Mary Bono (R-Calif.) and Hilda Solis (D-Calif.), former Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and current Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) told the Associated Press that they were sexually harassed by male colleagues; at least two of the unnamed alleged perpetrators, including a married lawmaker who propositioned Sanchez, still serve in Congress. Bono said one lawmaker told her on the House that he’d been thinking about her in the shower.
In a Dear Colleague letter sent to House members, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) and Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.) urged all offices “to adopt mandatory sexual harassment training” as already required in federal agencies.
That could start, they suggested, with a 30-minute online training session from the Office of Compliance (OOC) “for all of our offices to view and learn from, particularly considering that many staff may not be aware of what constitutes sexual harassment and misconduct.”
“As you may have seen in recent news reports, Congress is not immune from horrific stories of sexual harassment, abuse, and misconduct,” the congresswomen added. “Former and current staffers spoke out on social media during the #MeToo campaign, which originated after the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault and harassment allegations, sharing stunning and embarrassing stories of workplace harassment, including groping, inappropriate emails and text messages, and predatory behavior on the part of both Members and staff.”
“Each of us has introduced bills aimed at protecting legislative branch employees from sexual harassment by requiring proactive measures such as sexual harassment prevention and response training, enhancing anti-retaliation protections for staffers who report harassment, and streamlining the dispute resolution process currently in place at the OOC,” the letter continued. “However, we can and should take whatever action we can now to prevent sexual harassment in Congress. We must lead by example in our own offices by instituting mandatory sexual harassment prevention and response training now. Our staff works incredibly hard each day, and they deserve to have the same protections afforded their counterparts in the private sector as well as those in federal agencies. We should ensure that their workplaces are free from harassment and discrimination by doing whatever is in our power even if not required by law.”
On Wednesday, Norton said her staff would take the half-hour sexual harassment course. “It is time Congress took steps to fully abide by the laws it requires of private employers and federal agencies, including requiring training and the posting of workers’ rights,” she said.
A supporter of the mandatory training is Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who wrote in a Tuesday letter to the Senate Rules Committee that “sexual harassment training is vitally important to maintaining a respectful and productive work environment in Congress.”
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) announced today that she’ll be introducing legislation to improve reporting of sexual harassment in Congress, create a designated confidential point of contact in the Office of Compliance, require mandatory yearly sexual harassment training for lawmakers and staff, and remove the current requirement that victims go through mediation before filing a complaint of harassment or abuse.
“Congress should never be above the law or play by their own set of rules. The current process has little accountability and even less sensitivity to victims of sexual harassment,” Gillibrand said in a statement. “What we are seeing from the powerful #MeToo campaign is that sexual assault and sexual harassment are pervasive across our entire society. What you see time and again in institutions all around the country is a culture where power and fear keep sexual assault and sexual harassment in the shadows. Congress is no different.”
The senator, who has undertaken various legislative efforts to combat sexual harassment and assault on college campuses and the military, added that “the women and men coming forward are an inspiration because they are changing our society in a way that is making it unacceptable for people to turn a blind eye to sexual violence.”
“They are showing we can build a more just society for ourselves, our families and future generations by shining a light on injustice and saying we will not accept it anymore,” Gillibrand said, stressing that Congress must “create an environment where staffers can come forward if something happens to them without having to fear that it will ruin their careers.”
Infamous congressional sexual harassment scandals include former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) sending sexually suggestive messages to teen boys serving as congressional pages (Foley resigned in 2006) and Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.) admitting to groping and tickling male staffers; he resigned in 2010.