Sexual Harassment Settlements, Capitol Hill Reporting System Raise Lawmakers' Ire

President Trump deliver an address to a joint session of Congress on Feb. 28, 2017. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

WASHINGTON – Congressional lawmakers found liable for sexual harassment should foot the bill, rather than the taxpayer, for any settlement tied to the inappropriate behavior, Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.) told his colleagues on Tuesday.

“I know I speak for us all when I say this is not and should not be a political issue,” Byrne said at a hearing of the House Administration Committee. “Our staff and this institution’s members should be free to do the important work our constituents sent us to do without having to worry that they will be a victim of any sort of inappropriate behavior.”

Byrne’s comments came amid a firestorm of allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior concerning Hollywood elites like Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and Louis C.K., and politicians including Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Roy Moore, the Alabama Republican candidate vying in next month’s special election for the seat vacated by Jeff Sessions.

Last week a letter signed by more than 1,500 former congressional staff members dating back to the 1970s was delivered to Congress demanding reforms to the process by which Congress handles sexual harassment claims. Initially launched by Travis Moore, who worked on former Rep. Henry Waxman’s (D-Calif.) staff, the letter was partly inspired by a story from Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.). Speier recently described an incident in which a senior colleague sexually assaulted her when she was working on Capitol Hill as a staffer.

Speier, who also testified on Tuesday, has suggested a number of reforms for a sexual harassment review process on Capitol Hill that she believes is outdated. She noted that about 65 percent of sexual assaults in the United States go unreported, and said that in Congress an onerous review process dissuades victims from coming forward.

The present system, which is not available to interns or fellows, requires a submission to the Office of Compliance, which starts a process that can entail a 90-day review in which the victim is forced to sign a non-disclosure agreement prior to mediation.

“Throughout this agonizing time, the employee must continue to work in his or her office alongside the harasser, without saying a word to friends or family, and while their employer knows that they are engaged in mediation or pursuing a complaint,” Speier said, while adding that the “harassers” are provided free legal counsel from congressional staff.

“The present system may have been okay for the dark ages. It is not appropriate for the 21st century,” she said. “For the few survivors who secure a settlement, there is no disclosure of the office involved or the amount of funds. Taxpayers foot the bill, and the harasser goes on with his or her life. There is zero accountability and zero transparency. … It’s really no wonder that staffers do not seek this process at all.”

Moore’s letter cites a congressional survey conducted by CQ/Roll Call in July 2016, which found that 40 percent of female congressional staff believe that sexual harassment is an issue on Capitol Hill. The survey also showed that one in six female respondents claimed that they had been sexually harassed.

Speier is co-author of the Congressional Education About Sexual Harassment Eradication Resolution, or CEASE, which would require annual sexual harassment prevention and response training. On Tuesday, Speier said similar training is required for ethics and cyber security concerns. Speier also suggested Congress complete a “Congressional Climate” survey every two years to regularly monitor the extent of the problem.

Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) suggested that Congress introduce rules that would prevent members of Congress from having sexual relationships with young interns and staffers. She said that a lawmaker having a relationship with a 19-year-old, for example, creates a hostile work environment for other women in the office.