‘Embarrassing’ Congress Harassment Policy May Get New Look

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By Hassan A. Kanu

A pair of House lawmakers want to ramp up sexual harassment protections on Capitol Hill in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal.

California Democrat Jackie Speier plans as early as next week to introduce legislation that would strengthen sexual harassment policies for members of Congress and their staff.

The bill would revise the process for employee complaints against lawmakers and staffers, which Speier called “embarrassing.” That process requires sexual harassment victims to undergo counseling and wait as long as 30 days before filing a formal complaint, Speier told Bloomberg Law.

“I’m going to be rolling out a #MeTooCongress campaign that will help us understand how widespread the problem is in Congress,” Speier said. She referred to the popular social media campaign that took hold after extensive sexual harassment allegations against movie executive Weinstein became public earlier this month.

Mandated Training, Survey

The legislation would also require anti-harassment training for both members and staff and a mandatory “climate survey.” Speier’s staff told Bloomberg Law that anecdotal evidence suggests sexual harassment is a “large” problem in Congress but added that the survey would provide a clearer picture.

“This bill will require a climate survey just like we have in the military every two years, I think that’s really important,” Speier said.

Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.) Oct. 26 introduced a separate bill that would require each congressional office to enroll employees in sexual harassment prevention training. Lawmakers and their staffs, unlike the rest of the federal workforce, are not currently required to participate in anti-harassment training.

“It’s mandated that every employee get ethics and cybersecurity training, however it’s recommended that they get sexual harassment training,” Lawrence said.

One in six women said they had personally been the victim of workplace sexual harassment in a July 2017 Roll Call survey of congressional staff. Roughly 10 percent said they were aware of procedures in place for reporting harassment in Congress.

“I think once we have the data members will stop sticking their heads in the sand,” Speier told Bloomberg Law. “A lot of members recognize it’s a problem and want to do what’s right, and for those that have been reluctant to address it, I’m hopeful that with enough people coming forward they’ll recognize it’s time to do something.”

Lawmakers Resisted Previous Efforts

Speier got a bit of traction on a previous measure in the 2014 appropriations bill that would have required members and staff to have harassment prevention training every year. The measure would’ve set aside half a million dollars to fund the program.

“At the time, there were several scandals going on and the Congresswoman was concerned when she looked in and learned that training wasn’t mandatory,” a representative in Speier’s office told Bloomberg Law. The staffer referred to a number of incidents involving lawmakers and inappropriate workplace behavior, including former Louisiana Rep. Vance McAllister’s extramarital affair with a staff member, which was caught on tape.

Speier’s measure passed in the House but was taken out of the appropriations omnibus bill in the Senate. She then attempted a mandatory rule change to institute a training requirement but that effort failed as well.

“There’s a concerted effort to restrict accountability and to restrict a pathway for victims to seek justice,” Speier said. “I couldn’t even get it considered in the rules committee to make an order on the floor.”

Speier’s office has been unsuccessful in their attempts to include the measure in appropriations bills since 2014, the staffer said.

Parallel Efforts

Speier and Lawrence said they were supportive of each other’s efforts.

“Congresswoman Speier has been the fighter for this and has been driving it, I’m very supportive of her” plans for a comprehensive bill, Lawrence said.

The two pieces of legislation have the same end goal, Speier said.

“I’m happy to work with her on this, I think the more people engaged in making sure we hold everyone accountable the better,” she said in reference to Lawrence’s legislation.

Speier said she’s seen indications that some other lawmakers will co-sponsor the bill.

“I’m hoping that it will be a bipartisan piece of legislation, but again, I see this as a campaign,” she said. “I think people are shocked by the conduct that goes on and how widespread it is, and I think we need to take advantage of the opportunity that’s presented itself.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Hassan A. Kanu in Washington at hkanu@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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