For Harassment Cases, House Staffers Have Key Legal Resource Others Don’t

Most federal employees on the Hill don’t have access to free lawyer

New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, right, and California Rep. Jackie Speier hold a news conference in November to introduce legislation to address and prevent sexual harassment for Capitol Hill staffers. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, right, and California Rep. Jackie Speier hold a news conference in November to introduce legislation to address and prevent sexual harassment for Capitol Hill staffers. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 12, 2018 at 5:03am

Thanks to new internal House policies, staffers in the chamber now have access to a 24/7 hotline for legal advice on employment complaints. They can even retain a free lawyer for the entire in-house counseling and mediation process when they think they’ve been harassed, discriminated against or otherwise aggrieved.

But if you’re a U.S. Capitol Police officer, a janitor at the Capitol, an intern on the Senate side or a gardener at the Library of Congress — well, you’re on your own.

“That free lawyer is not available to employees at any other legislative agency,” said Les Alderman, a lawyer who has represented multiple congressional employees in harassment and discrimination cases. “Not anyone who works for the Architect of the Capitol, the Supreme Court, the U.S. Capitol Police. Only congressional staffers.”

As a wave of sexual misconduct scandals swept through Congress this winter, House lawmakers hammered through legislation aimed at revamping the administrative process for Hill employees when they want to file discrimination and harassment complaints. They also wanted to increase transparency during the process.

Watch: Roll Call Reporters Discuss Covering Sexual Harassment on the Hill in the #MeToo Era

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In February, the House passed a bill that would completely overhaul operations at the Office of Compliance, which oversees the response to sexual harassment complaints in Congress. The Senate has not taken up the bill.

The House also adopted a resolution updating its own internal protocol to prevent sexual harassment and deal with employment complaints. That resolution included a provision creating the Office of Employee Advocacy for House staffers. The OEA will operate the hotline for free legal advice and provide the pro bono lawyer.

But the OOC overhaul package does not include measures to create offices similar to the OEA for other legislative entities.


It’s a hole in the legislative administration apparatus that has implications for dozens of employees per year.

From 2010 to 2016, 580 congressional employees initiated the counseling process for complaints against their offices, according to data the OOC releases annually.

Of those 580 cases, just 60 were against House offices (both member offices and nonmember offices), or roughly 10 percent.

Within Congress, there seems to be some confusion and disconnect on why access to the OEA’s free legal counsel is so narrow.

When California Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier introduced the original form of the overhaul bill, it was split up over parliamentarian concerns — so it’s possible the language pertaining to the OEA that made it into the House resolution had narrowed to only cover House employees, according to Miriam Goldstein, Speier’s legislative director.

“Our policy intention is to cover everybody,” Goldstein said.

But creating a resource like the OEA through a resolution means that resource can only extend to House employees, a House Administration Committee aide indicated.

“All of the other legislative branch entities,” the aide said, “will have to administratively approach setting up this kind of support office differently and request the funding needed through their 2019 fiscal budget request.”

The OEA does appear to level the playing field for House staffers who want to file a complaint against their office.

Lawmakers have always had access to free lawyers through the Office of House Employment Counsel and the Senate Chief Counsel for Employment when employees make accusations. 

Before the OEA, their accusers, on the other hand, had nothing. If victims wanted a lawyer, they had to find one — and pay for it.

“The idea was to make sure both sides were equal and that a victim had a lawyer too,” Alderman said.

In the dark

But the both-sides-get-a-lawyer model isn’t the case for any legislative employing entity other than the House, according to Alderman. If a janitor in, say, the Russell Building wanted to file a complaint against the Architect of the Capitol — his employer — the janitor would have to find his own lawyer, while the AOC already has access to one.

This disadvantage for non-House employees seeking damages over employment issues is a piece of legislative minutiae that has to this point remained buried beneath the headlines.

Even the unions that represent employees of the U.S. Capitol Police, the AOC and other legislative agencies were unaware of the extra resource House staffers get that their members do not.

“We did not know of this, nor has the USCP board reached out to us over this,” Gus Papathanasiou, chairman of the U.S. Capitol Police Labor Committee, said in an email.

A spokeswoman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees chapter that represents roughly 500 nonskilled workers in the House and Senate office buildings, the U.S. Capitol and the U.S. Botanic Garden was also surprised.

“This is the first I’ve heard about it,” she said.

The agencies so far have been mum on whether they will try to mimic the House’s template for a legal counsel office for employees.

“We do not comment on pending legislation,” Capitol Police spokeswoman Eva Malecki said when asked if the department’s board would request money from Congress to create a resource like the OEA for its officers.

An AOC spokeswoman could not be reached for comment as of press time.