When sexual harassment or assault happens on Capitol Hill, victims who report must go through the Office of Compliance (OOC). It's a small outfit, unknown to many who work in Congress, and its process for handling claims of sexual harassment or assault has been criticized as excessively lengthy. Additionally, the OOC's sexual harassment training has, to date, been voluntary rather than mandatory. On Tuesday, Sen. Chuck Grassley called for sexual harassment training to be mandatory for Senate employees, rather than voluntary as it is now.
Grassley was the chief author of the Congressional Accountability Act, which instituted the OCC. And Grassley himself sent a letter on Tuesday to the Senate Rules Committee pushing for the change, writing, "I am convinced that sexual harassment training is vitally important to maintaining a respectful and productive work environment in Congress."
But Grassley isn't the only lawmaker in Congress calling for the OOC to change how it deals with such issues. On Oct. 27, Rep. Jackie Speier posted a video on Twitter about her experience with sexual misconduct in Congress; she herself was once forcibly kissed by a congressional chief of staff, she said, calling Congress a "breeding ground for a hostile work environment."
Rep. Speier said she will propose legislation to shorten the process for resolving complaints of sexual harassment and assault. Her office tells Bustle: "The process that is currently in place puts all the burden on survivors and is clearly designed to protect Members and the Institution, above all else. That is what the congresswoman wants to change, so that more people can come forward."
Her video detailing her experience was part of her s social media campaign dubbed #MeTooCongress, which hopes to encourage more people in Capitol Hill to come forward with their stories of sexual harassment or assault. But according to Speier's office, "It’s hard for them to share the information publicly because of the environment here on the Hill. They are justifiably terrified that their careers will be hurt by coming forward."
Created as part of the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995, the OOC dictates its own standards for processing sexual assault and harassment claims. That process includes a lengthy wait period before the alleged victim can press charges. Currently, the OOC requires 30 days of counseling and an additional 30 days mediation — with the alleged perpetrator — before any legal recourse can occur.
If a claim does finally emerge, settlement payments to victims do not come out of the perpetrator's own pocket or congressional coffers. Instead, those payments are made out of a special U.S. Treasury fund. Speier thinks it's time for an overhaul. In an interview with Politico, she called the OCC "a joke," saying "it encumbers the victim in ways that are indefensible.” Speier has proposed legislation to revamp the OCC multiple times, starting in 2014.
A big part of the problem appears to be the fact that so few congressional staff — or even Congress members themselves — know about the OCC or how it functions. In one instance outlined by Politico, Rep. Mark Meadows sought the intervention of Rep. Trey Gowdy's chief of staff to address accusations that his chief of staff was harassing the other employees. The OCC was apparently never a factor. Multiple congressional employees told Politico there is little information about the office itself, or what role it plays in handling harassment and assault claims.
The national conversation about sexual harassment and assault in different industries appears to have permeated Congress, too. Recently, Speaker Paul Ryan has approved a review of the current harassment policy, Politico reported. And if Grassley and Speier's efforts prove successful in revamping how Congress handles sexual misconduct internally, perhaps that would eventually be reflected in more comprehensive legislation that protects survivors, too.