In light of ongoing revelations of sexual harassment across the country, we decided to draft a letter two weeks ago urging Senate and House leaders to take more robust action against harassment on Capitol Hill, where we both worked for years. We thought we could get 100 signatures from fellow former congressional staffers.
We began circulating that letter nearly two weeks ago. Within four days, it had been signed by 1,500 former staff. More than a dozen courageous women also came to us to report abuse or harassment while working for Congress.
Clearly, Capitol Hill has a problem.
Lawmakers are acknowledging it, too. The Senate recently passed a bipartisan resolution requiring senators and staff members to take sexual harassment prevention training. This vote represents an important step, but it is not nearly enough.
Hill culture is characterized by a dramatic power imbalance. Performing the work of Congress demands that elected officials and their top deputies interact constantly with more junior – and more vulnerable – staff. This proximity to power can make Capitol Hill a workplace full of excitement and opportunity for ambitious public servants. Unfortunately, that same dynamic can be easily exploited.
A recent survey of congressional staff by CQ Roll Call found that 4 in 10 female respondents believed sexual harassment is a problem in Congress. This number surprised us – and not because it seems high. As one former staffer wrote to us: “I’m shocked it’s only 40 percent. It’s so widespread and endemic.”
Capitol Hill is still a man’s world. Female staff, and even female members, often shrug off inappropriate behavior to avoid being labeled troublemakers. Meanwhile, Hill staffers’ existence revolves around their bosses, whose names are on everything they do and whose reputations are behind every decision they make. Staffers are uncomfortable becoming the story and unaccustomed to acting on their own behalf. They are also deeply wary of talking to the press. They’re used to speaking for the boss, not themselves, and are conditioned against saying anything that might make their offices - or the institution - look bad. These notions become so ingrained they stay with most of us long after we’ve left the Hill.
Working on the Hill also creates an intense allegiance to the mission of the office, and staff are fiercely loyal and protective of not only their bosses but colleagues as well. This can cause bad behavior to be excused or compartmentalized, and it makes staff reluctant to take action that could ultimately harm the office. Congressional staff are at-will employees; if the boss goes down, or his reputation suffers, he takes the whole team with him.
Staffers who do decide to pursue a complaint face an opaque and burdensome process. Hill offices are small and run largely as members see fit. There’s no internal HR department with whom to lodge a confidential complaint. Instead, such matters are handled by the Office of Compliance, an entity few staffers even know exists, let alone how to navigate. Sexual harassment complaints filed with the OOC require extensive counseling and mediation – steps experts say can discourage individuals from coming forward – before legal action can be pursued.
This process should be less onerous and better understood, and congressional leaders must ensure every office – and every staffer – is aware of the options at their disposal. Counseling and mediation should be available, but voluntary. And the OOC should have the authority and resources to investigate complaints of harassment or abuse.
It is encouraging to see the Senate act to require training, but the existing online training module that will now become mandatory is inadequate. House and Senate rules should include mandatory, in-person sexual harassment prevention training for all staff and members. All employees need specific guidelines for determining what’s appropriate and legal, and what is grounds for punishment or dismissal. Members and chiefs of staff, in particular, also must understand their responsibility to prevent and report problematic behavior and to act if an employee violates the established standard of conduct.
Finally, Congress should regularly survey congressional staff to understand the scope of the sexual harassment problem on Capitol Hill and to determine what processes and tools are most effective in combating it. To help ensure accountability for making progress on this persistent problem, survey results should be made public.
We know there is a problem, and the solution requires transparency, training and accountability. No culture changes overnight, and the Hill is no exception. But the safety of tens of thousands of dedicated public servants in Congress demands that we try.
Kristin Nicholson is director of The Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University, and Travis Moore is founder and director of TechCongress, a technology fellowship. They wrote this piece for The Washington Post.