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Sexual Harassment Training for Congress: No Mandate, but Wise Idea

(Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
(Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

A voice vote in the House usually means the proposal is genuinely beyond reasonable opposition, despite today’s very low bar for rancorous discord.  

That was the case last week on an amendment to reduce Capitol maintenance by $500,000 next year and instead spend the money on enhancing sexual harassment training for members and their aides.  

In (yet another) election year when Democrats will accuse Republicans of “waging a war on women” at almost every turn, there was immediate bipartisan agreement on this much: Congress could stand to allocate a little less for floor wax and light bulbs in order to do a better job informing its employees what their rights are, the many forms of inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace and where to turn if they are harassed by colleagues or superiors — including their elected bosses.  

Still, it was something of a surprise that no member demanded a roll call vote, which would have meant someone insisting on going on record against an idea seemingly above reproach. Surely some anti-regulatory Republican conservative in a safe district would be ready to take the political risk — especially after hearing the ranking Democrat on the Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee, Florida’s Debbie Wasserman Schultz, declare that the language was written “to provide mandatory sexual harassment training for all congressional offices in the House.”  

But that isn’t what the language says. It does not create any mandate for members. Unless the provision is strengthened by the Senate or in conference, there can be no headline declaring, “Lawmakers must undergo training to prevent sexual harassment.” All the House actually voted for was to give the congressional Office of Compliance more money to improve its outreach on the topic and to make its existing courses available online, as well as in person. (There’s a 90-minute version and a three-day version, with examples of harassment, discrimination and retaliation on the Hill.) Beyond that, this November’s orientation programs for new members may include a thorough class on proper workplace behavior.  

Attending such sessions has been mandatory for years throughout the executive branch and is required at a growing majority of businesses, sometimes annually. But participation by House and Senate personal and committee offices remains almost entirely voluntary. Employee handbooks, which don’t even exist in every office, vary in what they say about discriminatory behavior. And unlike so many corporate workplaces, there are no notices by the coffee machines to remind workers of their rights.  

All this has led to the perception that lawmakers have exempted themselves from federal laws against sexual harassment. That has not been the case since enactment of a 1995 law specifically applying a dozen civil rights, labor and workplace safety regulations to the legislative branch. But critics say the way Congress polices its compliance remains too lax.  

“The American people expect us to conduct ourselves in a manner befitting the responsibilities and duties that we hold as members of Congress, not as if we are freshmen in a frat house,” the main sponsor of the amendment, Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier of California, said during the brief May 1 floor debate.  

Speier first came to Washington fresh out of law school in 1976, to work as legislative counsel to Democratic Rep. Leo J. Ryan of California. It would be a profound understatement to say the attitudes toward women in the workplace were different then — and no more so than at the Capitol, where only 3 percent of members were female. It was 15 years before Anita Hill’s Senate testimony raised the issue of sexual harassment to national prominence and political currency, even if it did not keep Clarence Thomas off the Supreme Court.  

While the Hill work environment may have grown less obviously hostile to women, Speier said, anecdotal evidence makes clear Congress falls way short of being a model employer — even if the official data suggest otherwise. While the low range of estimates is that 1 in 4 women nationally has experienced harassment on the job, the Office of Compliance says it received only 83 complaints in 2012, the most recent year with complete records.  

Earlier this spring, Speier proposed annual, mandatory sexual harassment training for members and staff — prompted, she said then, by video tape showing GOP Rep. Vance McAllister in a passionate kiss with the scheduler in his Louisiana district office.  

And, in reducing the reach of her proposal last week, Speier made it clear she views congressional sexual harassment as being perpetuated by both parties equally. On this, she got total agreement from the Republicans.  

“This is certainly not a partisan issue,” said House Administration Committee Chairwoman Candice S. Miller, R-Mich. “We have seen incidents over the years of Republicans and of Democrats, both sides of the aisle here.”  

The only culprit cited by name in the debate was a lawmaker who left the House two years ago: Bob Filner. Yes, the California Democrat who resigned as mayor of San Diego last summer after being accused of sexually harassing more than a dozen women, some of whom he encountered while serving as the ranking member of Veterans Affairs Committee at the end of his two-decade congressional career.  

“But none of the women ever said a word while Mr. Filner was still here,” Speier noted. “Not one.”  

Changing the staff culture about member misbehavior — with the default setting being to remain silent out of fear — will not happen because of a $500,000 budget adjustment or even a congressional mandate. But the money might spark a start.

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