Oppressive power dynamics and a burdensome reporting system are among the factors contributing to an allegedly rampant culture of sexual harassment on Capitol Hill, according to lawyers, lobbyists, former aides, and congresswomen who work there.
Of more than 50 women working on Capitol Hill who spoke anonymously to CNN, nearly all said they had personally experienced sexual harassment or knew colleagues who had. One former House staffer said that many men were “using their power without any self-control … going out and behaving very badly with younger staffers.” A number of women also revealed that there was an unofficial, unwritten “creep list” of male lawmakers who were known for their inappropriate or predatory behavior. One congresswomen said that she had endured sexual harassment from a number of her colleagues, but that she and others were “cautious about saying anything” because of possible retaliation and a slim likelihood of any actual consequences emerging from an allegation.
In more than 50 interviews given to The New York Times, female lawmakers detailed a reporting system for sexual harassment that some said was designed to prevent women from speaking out. In order to make a sexual harassment claim to the Office of Compliance, victims must engage in 30 days of counseling, followed by up to 30 days of mediation with the congressional office they are lodging the complaint against, and then wait another 30 days before they can officially file their complaint and get a hearing with either the OOC or the Federal District Court. Victims are required to officially file a claim within 180 days of the alleged harassment — which includes the 90 days of counseling, mediation, and arbitrary waiting required by the OOC.
“The system is so stacked,” explained Washington lawyer Debra Katz. “They don’t want people to come forward.”
Another former aide who filed a complaint with the OOC described the organization to CNN as “the place where complaints go to die.” Asked to respond to the claim, OOC executive director said that the office was not meant to be “an advocate” for either victims or their accusers.
On the positive side, pressure to do something about sexual harassment in congress is mounting. Last Thursday, the Senate passed a resolution to make sexual harassment training mandatory for senators, staff and interns, and on Tuesday a House committee held a hearing about their current sexual harassment policies.
Speaking separately to The New York Times and CNN, a number of women also detailed disturbing stories of harassment that they had personally suffered. As Katherine Cichy, put it, “Bottom line, my boss told me I was hot, and I had to sit in a room every day and work with him. And they didn’t do anything about it. Nothing.” Cichy worked as an aide former Senator Tim Johnson, Democrat of South Dakota, who is now retired. In 2013, Cichy said her boss in Johnson’s office repeatedly said she was “hot” in front of colleagues. She said she told the office’s chief of staff about the treatment, and was met with a dismissive response: “It is what it is,” Cichy recalled. Within months, she found another job and her boss remained in his job.