On Tuesday, the House Administration Committee held a hearing on how to prevent sexual harassment in Congress. House lawmakers went beyond simply extolling the importance of mandatory sexual harassment training — they also brought to light a handful of allegations concerning sitting members of Congress, including that there are currently two sitting members of Congress who have sexually harassed female staffers with no repercussions.
Virginia Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock relayed a story involving a young female staffer who was asked to deliver work materials to the residence of a male member of Congress. After greeting her in a towel, Comstock said the congressman invited the staffer inside and allegedly exposed himself.
"She left, and then she quit her job," Comstock said at the hearing. "That kind of situation — what are we doing here, for women right now who are dealing with somebody like that?"
Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat who has shared her own experience with sexual misconduct in Congress, alleged that two sitting members of Congress (one Republican and one Democrat) have engaged in sexual harassment, but not been subject to review. It's unclear whether either of the members is the same person mentioned by Comstock; neither Speier nor Comstock named them.
"I have had numerous meetings and phone calls with staff members — both present and former, women and men — who have been subjected to this inexcusable and oftentimes illegal behavior," said Speier. "In fact, there are two members of Congress, Republican and Democrat, right now, who serve, who have not been subject to review but have engaged in sexual harassment."
Speier went on to describe some of the alleged propositions from the congress members, saying it ranged from sexually suggestive comments to assault. "All they ask in return, as staff members, is to be able to work in a hostile-free work environment," added Speier. "They want the system fixed, and the perpetrators held accountable."
Though neither woman named any of those accused of sexual harassment, Comstock made clear that she isn't opposed to it, saying, "I think it’s important we name names."
Fixing the system, agreed those on the Committee, won't be easy — but mandatory training on sexual harassment will be a necessary first step.
One challenge, however, is the lack of funding for organizations tasked with providing such training. "Right now, we have two employees who work on training along with other issues," said Barbara Childs Wallace, chair of the Board of Directors of the Office of Compliance, in her testimony. "It's going to be vitally important that we obtain funding to add what we figure is probably three more FTEs [full-time-equivalent employees] to help us with the training."
The Tuesday morning allegations come on the heels of reports of a congressional "creep list" being passed around the Hill. This word-of-mouth roster, reports CNN, details the male lawmakers female staffers should avoid and the types of behaviors often exhibited on the Hill.
Former staffers who spoke to CNN detailed stories of sexual harassment, noting that the Capitol Hill elevators is a place women should avoid riding alone with men. At least six of the women interviewed alleged that a specific California congressman had pursued female staffers, while others mentioned a Texas congressman's inappropriate behavior. CNN did not name the congressmen.
Only time will tell if a day of reckoning similar to what other industries have seen will soon make its way to Congress. In a letter penned last week (and signed by at least 1,500 current and former congressional staffers), Congress is urged to crack down on sexual harassment, writing that current policies for "adjudicating complaints of harassment are inadequate and need reform."
The hearing comes in the wake of a slew of high-profile sexual harassment and assault allegations against both politicians and celebrities, and was meant to allow members of Congress to review their own internal policies and training on sexual harassment.
A number of both male and female lawmakers have publicly supported efforts to reform sexual harassment policies in Congress. Earlier this month, House Speaker Paul Ryan called on House members to ramp up their sexual harassment training, while Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand recently announced legislation aimed at overhauling the current process staffers take to report sexual harassment. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has also said that Capitol Hill workplace sexual harassment policies "need to be changed."