GAI Director Nicholson on Sexual Harassment on Capitol Hill

Kristin Nicholson | November 6, 2017

Since the New York Times and New Yorker dropped their bombshell reporting on Harvey Weinstein last month, sexual harassment and assault allegations have come to light against major figures in Hollywood, the news media, politics and other industries. Eyes have turned to Capitol Hill as well, with stories in the Washington Post, Politico, and Roll Call highlighting not only the prevalence of inappropriate or abusive behavior in Congress but also the lack of accountability and difficulties associated with reporting it. And it’s not just staff – several female members of Congress have also spoken out about being victims.

A 2016 CQ/Roll Call survey found that 40% of female respondents believe sexual harassment is a problem on Capitol Hill, and one in six reported having personally been victimized. Now, the issue is receiving renewed attention from lawmakers, staff, and observers. As discussions continue about how to ensure safe and supportive workplaces, it’s important to understand the culture and quirks of Capitol Hill as a work environment.

The Hill is a bizarre workplace. All industries have their own culture, but Congress is full of oddities difficult to comprehend from the outside. Powerful, often highly-respected and well-known public figures mix with young, ambitious public servants, and they interact routinely in performing their professional duties. Entry-level Staff Assistants pick up Senators at the airport or drive Congressmen to fundraisers. Twenty-something legislative aides are in and out of members’ offices with vote recommendations and policy briefings. Press secretaries, schedulers, and interns all find themselves one-on-one with their bosses at any given moment. It’s simply not possible to do the work of Congress without these paths crossing constantly.

This makes Capitol Hill an exciting and rewarding environment, one with unmatched access to powerful decision-makers and a ringside seat to pinch-yourself moments of historymaking. It’s a workplace full of opportunity for young people, but also one fraught with potential for exploitation.

First, Capitol Hill is still a man’s world. For a young woman – for that matter, any woman – on the Hill it’s frequently a challenge to prove yourself and be treated equally by male counterparts. Many women feel an unspoken pressure to show “toughness” by laughing off inappropriate behavior lest they disadvantage themselves by appearing weak or delicate or high-maintenance.

Beyond that, Senators and Representatives are treated with exceptional deference, on and off the Hill. It’s hard for most staff to even contemplate saying no to a member or calling out bad behavior. Even a senior staffer, who might enjoy a strong rapport and an easier give-and-take with her own boss, would still have a very hard time pushing back on any other member.

Meanwhile, a staffer’s entire existence revolves around the boss: carrying out their decisions, positioning them for success, polishing and maintaining their reputation. In this environment, staffers’ needs are never paramount and frequently not even relevant. The culture of the Hill dictates that staff’s comfort is beside the point. They stand against the wall while their bosses sit in leather chairs; they staff a lunch reception but don’t get to eat, they write the bill and put the member’s name on it; they tell people no after the boss mistakenly says yes.

Most staffers are fine with this. It’s the nature of the job, it’s usually far outweighed by the privilege and excitement of working where they do, and it’s what they signed up for. When everyday discomfort crosses into territory that’s clearly wrong or even criminal, however, it can be hard for staff to switch gears and put their own needs or safety first. Staffers aren’t comfortable becoming the story, and they’re not accustomed to acting on their own behalf.

The job also creates deeply personal allegiances. It’s hard to overstate how intensely loyal and protective staff are towards their bosses. Even when a staffer knows the boss has done something troubling or obviously inappropriate, it’s easy and common for them to overlook, compartmentalize, and excuse. One reason, certainly, is because protecting the boss is ingrained in a staffer’s psyche. It’s behind everything they do.

But almost all staffers also bear a deep sense of responsibility for their “team.”  Staff serve at the will of their boss. There are few job protections and no safety net for staff whose bosses retire or lose an election (or go to jail). If a member gets taken down by a complaint of wrong-doing, the entire staff is out of a job. This means not only will formally complaining about or calling out a boss’s behavior almost certainly cost a staffer her own job one way or another, but the fate of her colleagues could also ride on her decision.

Widening the lens, inappropriate behavior is also commonplace in the ecosystem around the Hill where, and addressing it even more problematic. Staffers constantly conduct meetings, hold conversations, and attend events with an array people who interact routinely with the Hill and their bosses. These include VIP constituents, campaign donors, lobbyists, local elected officials, and former members of Congress. Not surprisingly, these worlds are also frequently dominated by powerful men.

Many staffers are expected, and often obligated, to deal with these people both in the office and at outside events like fundraisers and receptions. The line between professional and social is easily, frequently blurred in these situations, and the presence of alcohol doesn’t help. Inappropriate comments and behavior – and worse – are common. And there is nothing a staffer can do to avoid these situations if her boss expects her to be there representing the office.

And what’s the recourse if a lobbyist makes a sexual comment, or a donor gropes a staffer at one of these events? Who does she complain to? It’s laughable to think she could go to the offender’s supervisor – if they even have one. It’s possible a staffer could notify or complain to her own boss.  But then what? Does she ask her boss to cut ties with a longtime friend, send that big check back to the donor, refuse to take the mayor’s calls? Good luck.

So where do we go from here? Clearly accountability is almost non-existent, and that’s hard to change. This is partly the nature of Hill offices. They are tiny (a typical House office may only have 6 or 7 staff) and autonomous (members are largely left to run their offices as they see fit) with no internal HR department or layers of supervisors that a staff member can go to confidentially. If the offender is the member himself, there’s no one in the office with any authority over him.

There is a process in place for reporting sexual harassment or assault, but it is ridiculously cumbersome and most staffers don’t even know it exists. Immediate efforts should be made to clarify and simplify these mechanisms and determine whether longer-term changes can improve the system further. A House committee has recently undertaken a review of processes and resources available, which is a necessary first step.

Many have recommended sexual harassment training, which currently is not required on the Hill, and legislative efforts are underway to mandate such training. While this certainly couldn’t hurt, it’s unclear how effective it would be. First, any requirement that exempts members (as is the case with ethics training) is missing the point. Moreover, while sexual harassment training may be useful in raising awareness, and could help ensure Hill staff know where to turn for help, studies have not shown such training to be particularly useful in actually stopping harassment. Finally, adding a training requirement would be a relatively quick and easy fix that could prompt members to pat themselves on the back for having addressed an issue that in fact requires a far more comprehensive response.

Instead, it’s critical that House and Senate leaders make real efforts to talk to members about what’s appropriate and legal, how to make themselves and their staffs more aware and sensitive to the problems, and how to ensure their offices are supportive and safe environments. And when these leaders, and other members, hear the “open secrets” about colleagues who are engaging in inappropriate or abusive behavior, they need to dig further and take meaningful action rather than turning away and hoping the whispers stay behind closed doors.

We also need more women in senior roles (and all roles) on the Hill, and just as importantly, we need more female members. The culture of Congress all but ensures that progress and change will be slow, but hopefully with more awareness, more sustained attention, and more staffers and members feeling empowered to speak out, change will come to Capitol Hill.

Kristin Nicholson is the Director of the Government Affairs Institute

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