Congress Continues To Address Its Sexual Harassment Issues The House and Senate are moving swiftly towards mandating previously optional sexual harassment training. The Senate approved the change last week, without a single objection. In the House on Tuesday, lawmakers held a hearing to consider even more far-reaching changes to shake up what many female lawmakers say is a culture that encourages silence.
NPR logo

Congress Continues To Address Its Sexual Harassment Issues

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/564163388/564163394" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Congress Continues To Address Its Sexual Harassment Issues

Congress Continues To Address Its Sexual Harassment Issues

Congress Continues To Address Its Sexual Harassment Issues

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/564163388/564163394" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

The House and Senate are moving swiftly towards mandating previously optional sexual harassment training. The Senate approved the change last week, without a single objection. In the House on Tuesday, lawmakers held a hearing to consider even more far-reaching changes to shake up what many female lawmakers say is a culture that encourages silence.

ELISE HU, HOST:

The ongoing wave of sexual harassment allegations is prompting Congress to try and change its culture. Last week, the Senate mandated sexual harassment training, which had been optional before. And today, House Speaker Paul Ryan pledged to adopt the same policy for his members and their staffs. That happened a few hours after House lawmakers held a hearing to consider far-reaching changes to shake up an environment that many lawmakers - female lawmakers - say encourages silence. Here's NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Like a lot of workplaces, there's whispered conversations among the women who work here. They warn each other about which men to watch out for, and they share their own stories of harassment. At the hearing, Virginia Republican Barbara Comstock shared one story she heard just recently.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARBARA COMSTOCK: This is about a member who is here now. I don't know who it is. But somebody who I trust told me this situation.

DAVIS: Comstock said this male lawmaker had asked a young female staffer to bring some paperwork to him at home. He answered the door in nothing but a towel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COMSTOCK: At that point, he decided to expose himself. She left, and then she quit her job.

DAVIS: California democratic lawmaker Jackie Speier divulged she's also aware of harassing behavior by her colleagues.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JACKIE SPEIER: In fact, there are two members of Congress, Republican and Democrat, right now who serve who have not been subject to review but have engaged in sexual harassment.

DAVIS: There really isn't any pushback on Capitol Hill to allegations like this. Lawmakers are aware that Congress has a reputation for being permissive of all sorts of bad behavior. They're just not sure what to do about it. Alabama Republican Bradley Byrne has one idea.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRADLEY BYRNE: It is my opinion that given the inherent power differential between a member and their staff that they supervise, we should include a strict prohibition on members engaging in a sexual relationship with staff under their direct supervision.

DAVIS: Byrne was an employment lawyer before he got to Congress. In addition to those stricter conduct rules, he says the House should have a universal harassment policy. Currently, each of the 435 House offices is considered an independent hiring authority that can set their own training policies. Byrne also wants to change the current system for settlements. If a claim against a lawmaker is settled and involves a financial award, it's paid for by taxpayers. And it's never disclosed to the public. There's no way to know how many claims have been paid out and at what cost.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BYRNE: Personally, I find this not acceptable. If a member of Congress settles a claim as the harasser or is found liable as a harasser, it is my belief that the members should be partially libel or required to repay the Treasury for such damages.

DAVIS: In reality, lawmakers are not the ones most often accused of harassing behavior, according to Gloria Lett, an attorney for the House Employment Counsel which oversees the mediation process for harassment claims.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GLORIA LETT: Overwhelmingly, the mediations concern staff and staff. It's very rarely when it involves a member, but those occasions have occurred.

DAVIS: Lett says she thinks the current process works pretty well despite lawmakers' concerns. Under the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act, there's a detailed three-step process that requires counseling and mediation before an employee can file a complaint. Attorneys for the House testified today that this is a process that protects the accusers and the accused. Lawmakers like Speier and Comstock aren't so sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SPEIER: I'm not convinced that the system we have in place protects the victim at all.

COMSTOCK: Yeah - agree.

DAVIS: They say today's hearing was just the first step to figuring out how to change that. Susan Davis, NPR News, the Capitol.

(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO'S "CIRRUS")

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.