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Mandatory by January: Sexual Harassment Training for Senators and Staff

House lawmakers have introduced similar legislation

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., sponsored a resolution that requires senators and their staffs to complete sexual harassment training by early January. Here, staffers line up at a committee hearing. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., sponsored a resolution that requires senators and their staffs to complete sexual harassment training by early January. Here, staffers line up at a committee hearing. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Senators and their staffs have until early January to complete sexual harassment training, made mandatory by a resolution the Senate adopted unanimously Thursday.

The resolution comes after recent scrutiny of how Congress handles sexual harassment in its offices. Nearly 1,500 former staffers have signed a letter to congressional leadership released Thursday saying the processes are “inadequate and need reform.”

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the ranking Democrat on the Rules and Administration Committee, sponsored the resolution, which garnered support from Democratic and Republican leadership.

Three Democratic lawmakers in the House — Rep. Jackie Speier of California, Rep. Brenda Lawrence of Michigan and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton of D.C. — have introduced similar legislation that addresses Congress’ sexual harassment policies.

Congress enacted the Congressional Accountability Act in 1995, setting workplace protections for its offices and establishing the Office of Compliance, which handles the sexual harassment training and complaint process in Congress. But lawmakers exempted themselves from mandatory sexual harassment training, which is required in the executive branch.

In a July 2016 Roll Call poll of congressional staffers, four in 10 women who responded said they believed sexual harassment is a problem on Capitol Hill, while one in six said they had personally had been victimized. Only ten percent believed there was a structure in place for reporting harassment.

Klobuchar’s resolution requires Senate employees to complete sexual harassment training every new Congress, as well as broader anti-harassment training dealing with minority and disability policies. Employees need to report receiving the training.

Speier introduced a resolution similar to Klobuchar’s. The legislation would require all House members, their staff and other House employees to complete sexual harassment training annually. They would also certify with the House Ethics Committee that they completed training.

She plans to introduce an additional bill that would reform the OOC and the process employees go through to file a harassment complaint. The current process requires 60 days of counseling and mediation before the victim can request an administrative hearing or file a case in federal district court.

The process of reporting harassment “is shockingly biased in favor of the perpetrator,” Speier said in a statement. “It’s long past time that Congress held itself to the same standards applied to other branches of government and to the private sector.”

Lawrence introduced a bill, which has garnered 92 co-sponsors, which would require congressional employees to receive sexual harassment training every two years and within 60 days of their first day of work. Lawrence investigated sexual harassment claims during her career in the executive branch, and she said mandatory trainings “put people on notice.”

“Making this mandatory and having everyone take this training is going to send a message,” she said.

Maine Republican Rep. Bruce Poliquin cosponsored Speier and Lawrence’s bills. He said he expects the provisions to gain Republican support in the House. “I don’t see” sexual harassment in Congress, he said. “I know it exists because it happened to Jackie.”

Norton’s bill is wider-reaching: It would bring the legislative branch under many of the workplace protections in the executive branch that Congress left out of the 1995 law. Offices would need to display signs detailing anti-discrimination laws and train employees on all of their workplace rights. Norton’s bill would also allow the OOC to use subpoenas to investigate violations of the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

Norton became the first woman to lead the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1977, and she is the first chair of the commission to issue guidance on sexual harassment.

“The public debate on sexual harassment also raises the importance of granting congressional staff the same civil and anti-discrimination protections afforded to other federal workers,” she said in a statement. “Congress must facilitate a workplace culture where employees feel protected and know their rights are protected.” 

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