Congress steps up efforts to prevent sexual harassment on Capitol Hill

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WASHINGTON —Members of Congress plan to review their policies on sexual harassment, and some are calling for mandated training for lawmakers and staff in the wake of a cascade of allegations involving celebrities and some politicians.

“This is something that, I believe has been moved to the front burner and will be taken with all seriousness — as it should be,’’ Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., chairman of the House Administration Committee, told USA TODAY. “Bad behavior can’t be tolerated and we want to address that.”

Harper’s committee will hold a hearing Tuesday on sexual harassment policies in the House.

The Senate passed a bipartisan resolution Thursday requiring senators and their staff to take training to prevent sexual harassment.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said “senators have an obligation to set an example.”

The steps come as numerous women have accused power players from Hollywood to national newsrooms of sexual advances. The Associated Press reported last week that several current and former female lawmakers said that had been subject to harassment or hostile sexual comments on Capitol Hill. And Republican Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, has been accused by four women of sexual misconduct. 

“We need to make sure that the workplace environment is appropriate and acceptable to everyone,” said Harper, who favors mandatory training. “I want to make sure that the staff is always protected … that you have an environment at work where everyone is treated with respect and no one is taken advantage of.’’

Tuesday’s panel will include Reps. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., both attorneys. Byrne practiced employment law in Alabama and advised companies on harassment policies. Speier, who has talked about her own experience with sexual harassment, has introduced bipartisan legislation that would require mandatory training for her House colleagues and their staffs. She also plans to introduce another bill that would improve what she calls a “toothless and abusive” complaint process.  

“It’s clear that the good ‘ol boys  club mentality of Capitol Hill still persists after all these years,’’ Speier wrote in an opinion piece in the San Francisco Chronicle Wednesday. “It is perhaps the worst I’ve seen in 30 years of working on these issues.’’

Currently, staffers can file a complaint at the Office of Compliance.

Speier said some have complained about feeling harassed during the mediation process and required to sign a nondisclosure agreement.

Harper said he doesn’t know the extent of the problem, if any, but said the House must put protections in place.

“We’re not going to be charged with investigating possible claims … we are charged with making sure this doesn’t happen in the future,” he said.

Sexual harassment training is not required in the House, but Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., recently urged lawmakers to take the training.

Under the Senate resolution, senators, staff and interns will have 60 days to complete training. The training, which must be certified, will be required each Congress.

Derryn Moten, chairman of the Department of History and Political Science at Alabama State University, said Congress is not immune to charges of sexual harassment and misconduct and should takeaction. 

“They should have the hearing if something productive is going to come out of it,” he said. “I don’t think they should have the hearing if it’s going be perfunctory … if it’s an exercise in futility.’’

But Moten said he expects there will be changes.

“It’s not going to be business as usual because we’re electing more women to Congress,’’ he said. “People are going to have their feet held to the fire.’’ 

Women make up nearly 19.4% of this Congress, up from 17.9% nearly five years ago.

Harper said Tuesday’s hearing will be followed by listening sessions for House members and eventually some recommendations, he said.

“We want a system that’s fair and not weighted towards a member or its staffer, but it’s got to actually be fair and everybody’s got to feel like they’re being treated fairly in the process,”  Harper said.

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