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Congress Continues To Address Its Sexual Harassment Issues

Nov 14, 2017
Originally published on November 14, 2017 10:13 pm
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ELISE HU, HOST:

The ongoing wave of sexual harassment allegations is prompting Congress to try and change its culture. Last week, the Senate mandated sexual harassment training, which had been optional before. And today, House Speaker Paul Ryan pledged to adopt the same policy for his members and their staffs. That happened a few hours after House lawmakers held a hearing to consider far-reaching changes to shake up an environment that many lawmakers - female lawmakers - say encourages silence. Here's NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Like a lot of workplaces, there's whispered conversations among the women who work here. They warn each other about which men to watch out for, and they share their own stories of harassment. At the hearing, Virginia Republican Barbara Comstock shared one story she heard just recently.

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BARBARA COMSTOCK: This is about a member who is here now. I don't know who it is. But somebody who I trust told me this situation.

DAVIS: Comstock said this male lawmaker had asked a young female staffer to bring some paperwork to him at home. He answered the door in nothing but a towel.

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COMSTOCK: At that point, he decided to expose himself. She left, and then she quit her job.

DAVIS: California democratic lawmaker Jackie Speier divulged she's also aware of harassing behavior by her colleagues.

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JACKIE 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.

DAVIS: There really isn't any pushback on Capitol Hill to allegations like this. Lawmakers are aware that Congress has a reputation for being permissive of all sorts of bad behavior. They're just not sure what to do about it. Alabama Republican Bradley Byrne has one idea.

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BRADLEY BYRNE: It is my opinion that given the inherent power differential between a member and their staff that they supervise, we should include a strict prohibition on members engaging in a sexual relationship with staff under their direct supervision.

DAVIS: Byrne was an employment lawyer before he got to Congress. In addition to those stricter conduct rules, he says the House should have a universal harassment policy. Currently, each of the 435 House offices is considered an independent hiring authority that can set their own training policies. Byrne also wants to change the current system for settlements. If a claim against a lawmaker is settled and involves a financial award, it's paid for by taxpayers. And it's never disclosed to the public. There's no way to know how many claims have been paid out and at what cost.

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BYRNE: Personally, I find this not acceptable. If a member of Congress settles a claim as the harasser or is found liable as a harasser, it is my belief that the members should be partially libel or required to repay the Treasury for such damages.

DAVIS: In reality, lawmakers are not the ones most often accused of harassing behavior, according to Gloria Lett, an attorney for the House Employment Counsel which oversees the mediation process for harassment claims.

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GLORIA LETT: Overwhelmingly, the mediations concern staff and staff. It's very rarely when it involves a member, but those occasions have occurred.

DAVIS: Lett says she thinks the current process works pretty well despite lawmakers' concerns. Under the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act, there's a detailed three-step process that requires counseling and mediation before an employee can file a complaint. Attorneys for the House testified today that this is a process that protects the accusers and the accused. Lawmakers like Speier and Comstock aren't so sure.

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SPEIER: I'm not convinced that the system we have in place protects the victim at all.

COMSTOCK: Yeah - agree.

DAVIS: They say today's hearing was just the first step to figuring out how to change that. Susan Davis, NPR News, the Capitol.

(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO'S "CIRRUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.