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Opinion: Time to Investigate Members for Sexual Harassment

Congress needs to root out serial offenders

California Rep. Jackie Speier has shed light on the longtime problem of sexual harassment on Capitol Hill.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
California Rep. Jackie Speier has shed light on the longtime problem of sexual harassment on Capitol Hill.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

This is not a #MeToo column about sexual harassment on Capitol Hill. I worked in the Senate for nine years and never experienced anything other than professional conduct and opportunities for advancement in my own offices. I was once told my salary would be less than my male predecessor because I wasn’t “a powerful man,” but that’s another issue for another time, and a moment I wish I could go back to again and again, because I know now I could have argued for more and won.

This is a #GetReal column about sexual harassment on Capitol Hill, because now that the longtime problem of sexual harassment on the Hill has been acknowledged, even by members like Rep. Jackie Speier and Rep. Debbie Dingell, it’s hard to believe that the only solutions being proposed are mandatory sexual harassment training or legislation that continues to rely solely on the victims of harassment coming forward to address this embedded cultural disease.

Reporting abuse when it happens is important, but preventing it from happening in the first place should be the goal, and for that, the voices of young staffers will never be enough. At some point, congressional leaders have to commit to finding the serial abusers among them and ending the bad behavior.

Avoidance behavior

Although I never experienced harassment in my offices, as young staffers on Capitol Hill, we knew who the “problem” members were. Some members we knew never to work for. Others, we’d literally keep at arm’s length or further, if necessary. Senator “X” coming down the hall? I think I’ll take the stairs. These members’ reputations were well-known, but if they were ever counseled by their own leadership to change their behavior, we could never tell.

I left the Hill more than 10 years ago, and the members I knew to avoid have all either retired, resigned or died. But according to a Roll Call survey from earlier this year, the problem of sexual harassment not only still exists, it is ongoing and widespread.

A CQ and Roll Call survey of staffers taken in July 2016 showed how pervasive harassment remains on Capitol Hill. Forty percent of the women who responded said they believe sexual harassment is a problem on the Hill, and 15 percent, one in six, said they had been subjected to harassment themselves.

Because of Congress’ own rules, reporting harassment is complicated and unconscionably difficult.

But even if it were easy, victims of harassment will always be reluctant to report abuse that could easily erupt into a public scandal for their own boss and, in hyperpartisan times like we’re in, a scandal for their party. It shouldn’t keep them from speaking up, but it’s easy to understand how it does.

Asking the question

It should never be solely the responsibility of victims to stop abuse and it isn’t as if the identities of harassers in Congress are unknowable. The first thing the leadership of both parties could do is start asking their own members, one by one, is this anything you’ve ever done? Then they could ask their chiefs of staff. It’s amazing what you can find out just by asking a question.

If leaders want some distance from the process, there is almost nothing other members of Congress like to do more besides legislating than investigating.

Congress routinely impanels itself to investigate matters large and small. They have hunted terrorists and impeached presidents. They have identified the bankers responsible for the 2008 financial collapse and the masterminds behind 9/11. They’re investigating all of Russia as we speak. Congress has select committees, Ethics committees, a Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

Is there no one capable of smoking out bad behavior between the Cannon and Russell office buildings?

If even those kinds of investigations are too close for comfort, how about a Government Accountability Office investigation? The GAO has conducted and concluded 659 investigations requested by members of Congress in the last year alone, including 12 investigations in the last week. A problem may as well not even exist if a member of Congress hasn’t asked the GAO to investigate it.

May I suggest Investigation No. 660?

The GAO even has a special investigative unit “to meet the Congress’ need for quick, focused responses to questions and issues of criminal activity, fraud, and abuse.” Given the fact that Congress has paid out more than $15 million over the years to settle harassment and other claims without the knowledge of congressional leaders, it wouldn’t be hard to make the case that sexual harassment in Congress qualifies for fraud, waste and abuse.

The nine years I worked on Capitol Hill were among the best I’ll ever have professionally, but I know that there are others who cannot say the same because of how they were treated, and even abused, by their bosses. Some of that treatment was inappropriate, some of it may have been criminal, and nearly all of it was avoidable — had the congressional leadership at the time known about the problem and cared enough about those staffers to stop it.

The leadership of Congress now knows.

It’s time for them to investigate their own members, impose appropriate punishments, and to get real about stopping harassment from happening in the future.

It’s the very least they can do to change the culture for young people who want to work in public service, but shouldn’t have to get harassed in order to do it.  

Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.

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