The Senate passed a resolution mandating sexual harassment training
House Speaker Paul Ryan called on House lawmakers to step up training
Two female House lawmakers on Tuesday accused sitting male lawmakers of sexual harassment and misconduct, including an allegation that a male lawmaker exposed his genitals to a female staffer.
Neither Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, nor Rep. Barbara Comstock, a Virginia Republican, named the lawmakers in question during a hearing in the House administration committee, but the accounts reverberated on Capitol Hill, where former and current aides have described sexual harassment as “pervasive.”
Speier, a Democrat who has gone public with her own allegations of sexual assault while she served as a Hill aide decades ago, testified before the panel Tuesday that two currently sitting members of Congress – one Democrat, one Republican – have “engaged in sexual harassment” but have not yet been reviewed.
Speier, who has proposed legislation that would change the House’s policy and make sexual harassment training mandatory for members and their staff, also said she has heard stories of “victims having their private parts grabbed on the House floor.”
During the hearing to review the House’s sexual harassment policies, Comstock said it was “important that we name names.”
During her opening statement, she told a gripping story of a young female aide who was asked to deliver materials to a male member of Congress. When the woman arrived at the member’s residence, the member greeted her in a towel, Comstock said, and proceeded to expose himself.
After the incident, the woman quit her job. The lawmaker, whom Comstock did not name, remains in office.
“She left, she found another job. But that kind of situation – what are we doing here for women right now who are dealing with somebody like that?” Comstock said.
The hearing by the panel, which oversees the chamber’s operations, is part of a review of how the House handles sexual harassment claims.
It comes amid growing calls for an overhaul of the way Congress handles allegations of sexual harassment, including a letter signed by more than 1,500 former Hill staffers who want to see reform for what they say are “inadequate” sexual harassment policies in Congress. A number of lawmakers have also come forward and shared stories of harassment they faced – either during their time as lawmakers or when they previously worked on Capitol Hill as aides.
Both House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky support ramping up sexual harassment training, as does House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat.
Following the hearing Tuesday, Ryan issued a statement saying, “Going forward, the House will adopt a policy of mandatory anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training for all Members and staff.”
“Our goal is not only to raise awareness, but also make abundantly clear that harassment in any form has no place in this institution,” Ryan said in the statement.
Until Ryan’s announcement Tuesday, there was no requirement for sexual harassment training in the House of Representatives. Individual offices could voluntarily have their staffs attend trainings offered by the Office of Compliance. The Senate just last week passed a resolution making sexual harassment training mandatory, not just for staffers and interns, but also for senators.
Lawmakers Tuesday focused also on the long-term effects of sexual harassment and misconduct on the Capitol.
One lawmaker, Republican Rodney Davis of Illinois, said that some female staffers in his office worried that “some offices might take a shortcut and not hire women as a way to avoid these issues.”
“Obviously, that’s not the right approach,” he said.
Many lawmakers and victims of sexual harassment on Capitol Hill have complained about the process by which sexual harassment reports are handled at the Capitol. However, Gloria Lett, counsel at the Office of House Employment, who testified at Tuesday’s hearing, said that she believed in the process and thought it worked “very effectively.”
She also noted that cases between staff members and lawmakers are “very rare” and that mediation cases are overwhelmingly between two staff members.
Several Democrats are sponsoring legislation that would change the way sexual harassment complaints are handled.
Speier told CNN’s “New Day” earlier Tuesday that current policy dictates that individuals coming forward with harassment complaints have to go through a three-month process.
“If someone wants to form a complaint they have to go through a month of legal counseling. … Then they go through mediation. And then they have to go through a one-month ‘cooling off’ period, all the while they are still required to work in that office that was a hostile work environment,” she said. “By the way … the general counsel of the House is representing the harasser. The victim has no counsel, no support.”
In the Senate, Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, is proposing a bill that would streamline the reporting process in the Office of Compliance, the little-known office that handles such complaints.
Barbara Childs Wallace, the chair of the Office of Compliance’s board of directors, called the mandatory training that lawmakers are calling for a necessary first step, but said more changes are needed to improve the culture on Capitol Hill.
“Leadership within each office is also important, and letting the employees know where they can go to complain is vitally important,” Childs Wallace told lawmakers. “But mandatory training is one very important component of trying to stop this.”
CNN’s Maegan Vazquez contributed to this report.