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How Congress Plays by Different Rules On Sexual Harassment

How Congress Plays by Different Rules On Sexual Harassment

Sunday, 29 October, 2017 - 09:45
Rep. Jackie Speier, California Democrat, talks to reporters in Washington. (Associated Press/FILE)

Briony Whitehouse was a 19-year-old intern in 2003 when she boarded an elevator in the Russell Senate Office Building with a Republican senator who, she said, kept sexually harassing her until the doors reopened.

She never reported the incident to her bosses for fear of jeopardizing her career. But she recently tweeted about her experience on Twitter as part of the #MeToo campaign, a social-media phenomenon that has aired thousands of complaints about sexual harassment.

Some of the accounts have called out by name Hollywood moguls, media stars, even a former US president. Other women such as Whitehouse have stopped short of naming harassers.

Whitehouse in an interview last week with The Washington Post declined to name the politician. “At the time, I didn’t know what to do, so I did nothing at all,” said Whitehouse, who works overseas as a political consultant. “Because this happened so early on for me, I just assumed this was the way things worked and that I’d have to accept it.”

If Whitehouse had chosen to pursue a complaint against the senator, she would have discovered a process unlike other parts of the federal government or much of the private sector. Her complaint likely would have been thrown out because interns have limited harassment protections under the unique employment law that Congress applies to itself.

Congress makes its own rules about the handling of sexual complaints against members and staff, passing laws exempting it from practices that apply to other employers.

The result is a culture in which some lawmakers suspect harassment is rampant. Yet victims are unlikely to come forward, according to attorneys who represent them.

Under a law in place since 1995, accusers may file lawsuits only if they first agree to go through months of counseling and mediation. A special congressional office is charged with trying to resolve the cases out of court.

When settlements do occur, members do not pay them from their own office funds, a requirement in other federal agencies. Between 1997 and 2014, the U.S. Treasury has paid $15.2 million in 235 awards and settlements for Capitol Hill workplace violations, according to the congressional Office of Compliance.

“It is not a victim-friendly process. It is an institution-protection process,” said Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), who has unsuccessfully pushed to overhaul how harassment cases are handled. “I think we would find that sexual harassment is rampant in the institution. But no one wants to know, because they’d have to do something about it.”

Ally Coll Steele, a Washington lawyer, shared her story about a former Democratic senator touching her lower-back at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. She was an 18-year-old intern, and the senator’s wife and staff were standing nearby.

“I was in the position of having no choice but reacting in a way that was going to make a big deal out of it in front his staff or his wife, or acting like nothing was happening. I chose the latter,” Steele said.

People she told about the incident said they were sorry it happened but not surprised, she recalled. Her colleagues had described the former senator as “handsy.”

The Washington Post
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