All senators and their staff will now be required to undergo sexual harassment prevention training — the first major policy change in Congress since the legislative branch came under heightened scrutiny as a breeding ground for workplace harassment.
The Senate unanimously voted to mandate harassment prevention training late Thursday night, requiring all new lawmakers and staff in the upper chamber to complete training within the first 60 days in office, and repeat it at least once every two-year congressional session.
The resolution, co-sponsored by Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), also called to circulate an anonymous survey to gather more information about sexual harassment or similar inappropriate behavior in the Senate.
Until now, workplace harassment prevention training was optional for members of Congress and their staff. In the House, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) has called for a review of sexual harassment training and reporting policies, and House Administration Committee Chair Rep. Gregg Harper (R-MS) is holding a hearing on the issue next week. Other trainings, such as for ethics and cybersecurity, are mandatory for employment in Congress.
This action in the Senate comes on the heels of several reports from the Washington Post and Politico demonstrating just how pervasive harassment is in the Washington power center. Several current and former female members of Congress have since shared their own experiences being harassed by their male colleagues.
As sexual harassment awareness grows as a national flashpoint, all eyes are on the high-stakes, high-pressure environment in Congress, where the striking power imbalance between low-paid employees and the nation’s most powerful politicians all too often allows for unfettered corruption and misconduct.
Congress is a breeding ground for harassment
Just this week, Rep. Brenda Lawrence, (D-MI) put her chief of staff on leave in light of complaints from three female staffers.
It’s a reality that has become all too common in Congress. There are certain factors that lead to higher levels of workplace harassment:
- In male-dominated environments, women experience high levels of harassment.
- Workplaces that revolve around the approval of a powerful figure of authority create a risk for harassment.
- Those in low-wage positions experience high levels of harassment because they do not have bargaining power to push back.
Congress checks those boxes.
“Wherever there are big power disparities with people working closely together, that is a risk factor for work place harassment,” Emily Martin, general counsel and vice president of workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center, said. “When you have a congressman working with a woman who is in her first job after college, that is a dynamic that can risk work place harassment.”
Working relationships are currency on Capitol Hill, where the future of people’s careers hinges on supporting a person in power. Staff positions are low-paid and have high turnover — and moving jobs often requires having a good reputation.
For those experiencing harassment, there’s a constant fear of tarnishing that reputation. And it’s a well-founded concern — a 2015 analysis of complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission shows 75 percent of women who report harassment experience retaliation, a real fear on Capitol Hill.
“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,” Ally Coll Steele, a former Democratic senator’s intern, told the Washington Post about the senator grabbing her buttocks at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
The system for harassment oversight in Congress is not accessible.
Time and time again, these stories come to the surface. Congress didn’t develop a reporting system for harassment until 1995, after Republican Sen. Bob Packwood resigned in disgrace over harassment claims — and conversations with congressional aides have indicated it’s an issue that still goes wildly unaddressed.
Individual lawmakers’ offices don’t have HR departments. Instead there is a confusing network of oversight bodies that address different complaints in various ways, mandated by the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act, which enacted civil rights, labor, workplace safety, and health laws to Congress and agencies under the legislative branch. It’s a difficult system to navigate, and one that can have unsatisfactory results.
In 2015, Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-TX) settled a sexual harassment case with his former communications director Lauren Greene after a series of inappropriate comments. Farenthold still holds office. In 2011, Rep. John Ensign (R-NV) resigned after acknowledging having an affair with a staffer. In 2010, Rep. Eric Massa (D-NY) resigned after allegations that he had groped a male staffer. In 2014, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) shared personal accounts of sexual harassment from her Senate colleagues. The list goes on.
For many staffers, the best solution is often to change offices, a practice that can allow a serial offender to affect more individuals. There’s no question that most cases in Congress are going unreported.
The Senate’s newly passed resolution is one step in helping raise awareness. But it’s not a new effort. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA), who began a video campaign calling on congressional staffers and members to share their experiences with harassment last month, attempted to mandate training in 2014 — a call that went unanswered. Now the House is reconsidering.
“The chief of staff held my face kissed me and stuck his tongue in my mouth,” Speier said in the video campaign. “I know what it’s like to keep these things hidden deep down inside. … Congress has been a breeding ground for a hostile work environment for far too long.”