Lawmakers say some in Congress are harassers, new policies may be needed

KING 5's Natalie Brand reports.

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers in both parties said Tuesday that current members of Congress have been involved in sexual harassment and called for mandatory training for lawmakers and their staffs.

“I think the culture in this country has been awakened to the fact that we have a serious epidemic in the workplace, in all professions, in all walks of life and it’s incumbent on those who are in authority to address it and address it swiftly," Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said after testifying before the House Administration Committee.

Speier, who has been leading the push for mandatory training, said at the hearing on preventing sexual harassment on Capitol Hill there are two current members who have been involved in sexual harassment. 

She also cited a letter signed by more than 1,500 former Congressional staff members who urged lawmakers to require mandatory training on sexual harassment. 

Democrats and Republicans agreed that mandatory training is likely to happen. They said there’s more momentum in the wake of national attention on allegations of sexual harassment from Hollywood to national newsrooms to Congress.

“This hearing is a good indication that members are swiftly going to move forward on mandatory sexual harassment training, I believe, for both members and staff,’’ Speier said. “The real test will be whether we’re going to reform the Office of Compliance, which is not a victim-friendly office.’’

The Office of Compliance was created in 1995 to enforce workforce protections in Congress, which had previously been exempt from most labor and accessibility laws.

The House Administration Committee, which issues policies for congressional offices, is considering new policies on sexual harassment, including new training requirements. 

“There is no place for sexual harassment in our society, period, and especially in the Congress," said Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., chairman of the House Administration Committee.

Sexual harassment is a national problem and “Congress is not immune from this issue,’’ he said.

Speier, who has talked about her own experience being sexually harassed when she was a congressional staffer, said her office has been flooded with calls since she came forward.

"From comments like 'Are you going to be a good girl?,' to harassers exposing their genitals, to victims having their private parts grabbed on the House floor, women and men have trusted me with their stories,'' she told committee members. "All they asked in return was that we fix our abusive system and hold the perpetrators accountable." 

Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va., said she was told about a staffer who quit her job after a lawmaker asked her to bring work material to his house, then exposed himself. She said she's confident the House will act.

“There’s no doubt it’s going to be mandatory," she said. "You’ve already seen the Senate pass it. We’re going to pass that. But I think we’ll go beyond that.’’

Speier has introduced bipartisan legislation that would require mandatory training for her House colleagues and their staffs and plans to introduce another bill that would improve the complaint process. 

Last week, the Senate passed a bipartisan resolution requiring senators and their staff to take training to prevent sexual harassment.

Harper, who supports mandatory training, said the House must develop a comprehensive approach to addressing sexual harassment.

He called the hearing the first step in the House review of its policies on sexual harassment. Harper said victims aren’t always aware of the resources available to them.

Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., said the current sexual harassment training  is underutilized, and Congress operates under a patchwork of employment policies.

“We need to increase member accountability," said Byrne, who practiced employment law in Alabama and advised companies on harassment policies.

Speier said that under current policies, “Congressional employees are, at best, unaware or confused and at worst are utterly betrayed.’’

"There is zero accountability and zero transparency,’’ she said.

Rep. Robert Brady, D-Pa., who is a grandfather, said it’s a “moral responsibility and obligation to protect somebody’s else’s” granddaughter

Speier praised the committee for attempting to address what she called a complex and sometimes uncomfortable issue.

“Sometimes it’s uncomfortable because these are going to be colleagues of ours who have sexually harassed members of their staff," she said after the hearing. “It may be uncomfortable, but we’ve got to do the right thing."

What Washington's lawmakers are saying: 

“This does more than just raise awareness—this is about making clear that harassment in any form is unacceptable. Preventing sexual harassment in the workplace starts with educating people on appropriate workplace behavior and providing resources and support for victims who need help. I support members of Congress and Congressional staff undergoing anti-harassment training to ensure offices are safe and welcoming places for everyone.” – Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) 

“Sexual harassment is wrong and inexcusable. Congress needs to fix its workplace policies which for far too long have made it difficult for victims of harassment to seek justice. I have already completed this training, because I hold my staff and myself to the high ethical standards that the public expects and deserves.” – Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-WA
 
“I do not condone harassment of any kind and welcome the Speaker’s announcement. In fact, prior to the Speaker’s announcement this afternoon, I had directed all of my staff to take the sexual harassment course provided by the House that serves to educate about how to recognize workplace harassment and how to safely report it,” Rep. Reichert said. “I am also a cosponsor of H.Res.604, the CEASE Resolution that requires all House Members and staff to complete sexual harassment prevention and response training. This is an important issue and I am glad the Speaker has taken this action.” – Rep. Dave Reichert, R-WA

Rep. Denny Heck, D-WA, is supportive of making it mandatory or everyone,” said a spokeswoman. 
 
Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-WA supports Speaker Ryan’s decision, and had already required the training for her own staff,” according to a spokeswoman.

Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-WA spoke on the topic during an interview with C-SPAN's Washington Journal. 
 
“It needs to change,” she said of current policies. “We should have a no tolerance policy for sexual harassment. There should be training. I think this is important for all organizations," said DelBene during the interview with C-SPAN. 

“Congress must send a clear message that sexual harassment is unacceptable. I am pleased to see Speaker Ryan announce a long-overdue policy change in the House of Representatives to combat sexual harassment. My office has already implemented mandatory, annual sexual harassment training for everyone in the office, and I am committed to providing a work environment free from discrimination, harassment or intimidation.” – Rep. Adam Smith, D-WA

Senators passed a resolution requiring anti-harassment training last week. 

Washington Senator Patty Murray is very glad that this conversation is happening and will be working with her colleagues on next steps to make sure Congress keeps moving in the right direction on this front,” said a spokesman.

"There is no line of work, no career trajectory and no political party where women are immune to inappropriate behavior and harassment. Members of Congress and staffers alike have had to endure this behavior for far too long, and I’m glad the House is finally taking the steps to make sexual harassment training mandatory for everyone. This is long overdue and, though Congress has fallen short on this issue too many times to count in the past, it is my hope that this shift will be a step toward changing the culture of accepted misogyny, harassment and belittlement that is all-too-common for women in our society.” – Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-WA

© 2017 KING-TV


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