The nation’s capital has been MIA from the #MeToo moment.
Actresses, athletes, media personalities and state lawmakers around the country continue to go public with their stories of sexual harassment. On Capitol Hill, there’s been mostly silence.
Many female lawmakers have tweeted about #MeToo in recent days, but their spokespeople say they were using the tag to show their solidarity with harassment victims, not to signal they, too, have been harassed. Just four women senators participated in an Oct. 22 Meet the Press segment on NBC that asked them to share their #MeToo stories. None of the incidents related by Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., or Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, occurred in Washington.
The ratio of complaints to employees in Congress is one-seventh what it is in the executive branch.
Given the well-documented cases of politicians’ inappropriate behavior with underlings that continue to emerge, year after year, it’s difficult to argue that Washington is immune from the problem of sexual harassment. What’s more likely is that there are still few who want to talk about it. McClatchy reached out to more than a dozen female lawmakers, former lawmakers, staffers and lobbyists in the wake of the Weinstein scandal, including former staffers for North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows who complained about being harassed by his former chief of staff, records from the Office of Congressional Ethics show. No one was willing to discuss any harassment they’ve faced in their careers in Washington.
California Congresswoman Jackie Speier is hoping to change that. The veteran lawmaker is planning to introduce new measures that would shine a light on sexual harassment in Congress and make it easier for victims of harassment to report it. The legislation, which Speier is still putting together, is just the latest in a series of proposals the Democrat from San Mateo, Calif. has pushed in recent years to tackle harassment on Capitol Hill. Her previous efforts, which focused on training for House offices, stalled in 2014. The issue was simply not a priority for Congress then – “out of sight, out of mind,” she surmises.
The revelations about Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein’s predatory behavior and the viral #MeToo movement that’s sprung out of those stories are now giving Speier hope a shift is afoot. She thinks awareness about the issue of sexual harassment has reached “a tipping point, which makes it relevant to bring up (legislation) again.” But Speier has some work to do to convince her colleagues that Congress, too, has a problem.
The whole point of the #MeToo hashtag that’s spread across social media is to bring sexual harassment out of the shadows, to demonstrate, by speaking up and sharing one’s personal experience, how prevalent the problem is. Hundreds of women working at the California state capitol in Sacramento took it a step further, authoring an open letter about “pervasive” sexual harassment in the Legislature. “It is time for women to speak up and share their stories,” the letter reads.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s daughter, Christine, has been one of the most outspoken criticizing the sexist culture in Sacramento. But her mother said last week that she had not witnessed similar harassment on Capitol Hill. “I don't have that experience in Washington, D.C. I just don’t,” Pelosi said at a forum in Los Angeles hosted by the Los Angeles Times.
That could be because Pelosi et. al. are already in a position of power. Republican Rep. Susan Brooks, R-Ind., co-chair of the bipartisan Women’s Caucus in the House, says she hasn’t heard women members complain about harassment, but says it is a concern for staff. It’s an issue in any setting where there is a power inequity, Brooks says, pointing to her own bill to combat sexual abuse in amateur sports. The legislation, a response to allegations that a U.S. gymnastics doctor systematically molested female gymnasts, passed the House in May. “I wouldn’t say I’m specifically concerned about Congress,” says Brooks.
Speier is. As a member of Congress, she’s been a leading voice in the effort to combat sexual assault in the military and believes the dynamics in the U.S. Capitol are similar. “I think you have disparate power relationships,” Speier says.
There are almost annual revelations about male lawmakers’ inappropriate relationships with staff members – from Rep. Gary Condit, D-Calif., and intern Chandra Levy in 2001 to Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., and his chief of staff just this month. As in the military, there is a fear that if a female legislative staffer reports harassment from a superior, she can “kiss her career goodbye,” Speier says.
Unlike the executive branch, members of Congress and their staffs are not required to participate in sexual harassment prevention training. In 2014, Speier introduced a resolution to make such training mandatory. It was never brought to a vote. The same year, the congresswoman also pushed to give $500,000 to Congress’ Office of Compliance for sexual harassment training as part of the fiscal year 2015 spending bill. Her amendment passed in the House but got dropped in negotiations with the Senate.
Speier plans to re-up her bid to make sexual harassment prevention training mandatory for legislative branch employees. But she wants to go further –overhauling the Office of Compliance’s process for reporting harassment, which she complains is stuck in “the dark ages.” Under a law passed in 1995, any employee who reports harassment to the Office of Compliance (OOC) has to undergo 30 days of counseling and then wait another 15 days to begin a process of mediation with his or her employer. It’s a process, says Speier that “is there to protect the institution, not the victim.”
The number of legislative branch staff reporting harassment to the Office of Compliance is strikingly low. In fiscal year 2016, the OOC received 79 complaints of harassment or discrimination from a workforce of more than 30,000. That’s a ratio of just 0.2 percent. In comparison, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which oversees the executive branch, received 28,216 complaints, representing 1.4 percent of the workforce.
Speier also will call for a “climate survey” to get a better sense of how widespread harassment in Congress actually is. In Sacramento, for example, the Legislative Women’s Caucus conducted a survey with female staff on the climate in the legislature in February. Among other things, respondents resoundingly reported that the state Capitol remained a “boys club.” Speier, who served in the California Legislature for two decades, says, “I can’t believe this environment is any different.”