Briony Whitehouse was a 19-year-old intern in 2003 when she boarded an elevator in the Russell Senate Office Building with a Republican senator, who she said groped her until the doors reopened.
She never reported the incident to her bosses for fear of jeopardizing her career. But she recently tweeted about her experience on Twitter as part of the “#MeToo” campaign, a social-media phenomenon that has aired thousands of complaints about unwanted sexual harassment.
Some of the accounts have called out by name Hollywood moguls, media stars, even a former U.S. president. Other women such as Whitehouse have stopped short of naming harassers. Whitehouse in an interview last week with The Washington Post declined to name the politician who made unwanted advances, convinced that he would retaliate.
“At the time, I didn’t know what to do, so I did nothing at all,” said Whitehouse, who works overseas as a political consultant. “Because this happened so early on for me, I just assumed this was the way things worked and that I’d have to accept it.”
If Whitehouse had chosen to pursue a complaint against the senator, she would have discovered a process unlike other parts of the federal government or much of the private sector. Her complaint likely would have been thrown out because interns have limited harassment protections under the unique employment law that Congress applies to itself. (Click here to read other troubling accounts.)
Congress makes its own rules about the handling of sexual complaints against members and staff, passing laws exempting it from practices that apply to other employers.
The result is a culture in which some lawmakers suspect harassment is rampant. Yet victims are unlikely to come forward, according to attorneys who represent them.
Under a law in place since 1995, accusers may file lawsuits only if they first agree to go through months of counseling and mediation. A special congressional office is charged with trying to resolve the cases out of court.
When settlements do occur, members do not pay them from their own office funds, a requirement in other federal agencies. Instead, the confidential payments come out of a special U.S. Treasury fund.
Congressional employees have received small settlements compared to the amounts some public figures pay out. Between 1997 and 2014, the U.S. Treasury has paid $15.2 million in 235 awards and settlements for Capitol Hill workplace violations, according to the congressional Office of Compliance. The statistics do not break down the exact nature of the violations.
“It is not a victim-friendly process. It is an institution-protection process,” said Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), who has unsuccessfully pushed to overhaul how harassment cases are handled. “I think we would find that sexual harassment is rampant in the institution. But no one wants to know, because they’d have to do something about it.”
“We have no doubt that sexual harassment is underreported in Congress, just as all workplace infractions are underreported in Congress,” said Brad Fitch, president and chief executive of the Congressional Management Foundation, a nonprofit organization that helps lawmakers and staff learn to run their offices.
Victims who do seek action face a confusing process under a law known as the Congressional Accountability Act that was put in place in 1995. Sponsored by Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), it imposed a range of civil rights, labor and worker-safety laws on Capitol Hill for the first time.
A scandal involving Sen. Robert Packwood (R-Ore.) and multiple women accusers led to his 1995 resignation and to debate over which labor protections should apply to Congress. Packwood first denied the allegations, but later apologized.
Following the Packwood allegations, a 1993 survey by The Post showed that one-third of female congressional employees responding said they were sexually harassed by members, supervisors, lobbyists or fellow aides.
Grassley’s bill established the 20-person Office of Compliance to adjudicate disputes and handle harassment complaints.
The law gives victims 180 days after the offending incident to initiate complaints. Victims must agree to go through counseling, which take typically takes 30 days.
After that, victims who want to continue, begin 30 days of mediation, which is handled by a neutral mediator. If the problem is still unresolved, they can pursue an OOC administrative hearing or file a federal lawsuit against their harasser.
The confidential dispute resolution process can be made public only if the case is ruled in the victim’s favor, after it goes through administrative or judicial proceedings.
The OOC contends that its process has helped resolve “scores of employee disputes” and benefits all sides.
Some advocates believe the pre-lawsuit mediation requirement undercuts victims. The rule contrasts sharply with the rest of the federal government, where mediation is an option but not mandatory for employees to pursue legal action.
Few staffers seem aware of their rights or the harassment reporting process.
“A lot of people are confused about it. We’ll get calls from people who work down on the Hill, and they’re not all that clear as to what they should be doing,” said Alan Lescht, an employment attorney in Washington who handles harassment cases involving federal and congressional employees.
The only mandatory training for congressional employees is an ethics program put into place after the 2006 Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal and instruction on cybersecurity. The lack of mandatory anti-harassment training places Congress out of step with the majority of the private sector, according to human-resources experts.
The OOC sends newsletters and regular emails urging chiefs of staff to prioritize staff training and describing how to access resources online. While the office oversees tens of thousands of employees, only about 800 people since 2015 have taken its 20-minute online tutorial on preventing sexual harassment.
Some congressional leaders have been questioned about the culture on Capitol Hill amid a national outcry over allegations of serial harassment by Weinstein.
Grassley told The Post this week that if the law is not effectively accomplishing sexual harassment prevention and anti-discriminatory training, “then it should be revisited.”
Nancy Pelosi said members need to take responsibility for anti-harassment training in their own offices. A 2014 effort led by Speier to make training mandatory was defeated, but Pelosi told The Post she supports Speier’s efforts. On Thursday, Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.) introduced a bill to require sexual-harassment training.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who has spoken about her own experience with sexual harassment in Congress, said she supports mandatory sexual harassment training for every member of Congress and their staff.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) recently said that it would be “naïve” to suggest sexual harassment doesn’t happen on Capitol Hill, and that current systems can always be improved. His office declined to offer more details.
“I do believe that exposing these things can help improve the culture,” Ryan said in an interview on MSNBC. “The more you expose it and the more we can castigate people in society on these things to show that this is not acceptable behavior, I think that’s to the good.”
Speier said members need to be held more accountable. “It’s an embarrassment,” she said, “and we’ve got to fix it.”
I’m not sure which is more disturbing – the fact that our money is spent on settling sexual harassment cases or that our money is spent on training people how not to sexually harass people. How hard can it be to ‘train’ someone to keep their hands to themselves and their comments confined to business? Instead of sending the victim to counseling, why aren’t we putting the harasser in the penalty box?
If Trump wants to drain the swamp, my suggestion would be start here by getting rid of the leeches.