Rep. Barbara Comstock’s calm, deliberate tone and the stately Longworth House Office Building hearing room where she spoke belied the depravity of the story she told.
The Northern Virginia Republican said a current male member of Congress had a young, female staffer deliver materials to his home.
He greeted his employee clad in a towel.
“He invited her in,” Comstock said. “At that point, he decided to expose himself.”
Comstock doesn’t know her colleague’s name, but trusts the person who gave her the information.
This story demonstrated, more than anything else said at the House Administration Committee hearing Tuesday, the critical need for Congress to do what the hearing’s title dictates: “Preventing Sexual Harassment in the Congressional Workplace.”
Although Comstock’s story would have been stronger with the congressman’s name, the message remains urgent. While the identity of any one pervert is important, the nation belatedly is realizing that sexual misconduct — harassment, abuse, rape — is a pervasive part of our culture — especially male culture.
The warped sense of male license is so ingrained, excused and accepted, that a confessed sexual abuser, Donald Trump, was elected president (see the “Access Hollywood” tape, which Trump dismissed as locker-room talk) and a congressman thought greeting a staffer in a towel was okay. Acknowledging the men and boys who also have been victimized and the false accusations that are accepted as fact doesn’t detract from the overwhelming reality of women who suffer male abuse in silence, while men who commit crimes on women can joke about it.
Many of us, if not most of us, know someone who has been sexually harassed or abused.
Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) said his female chief of staff, “who has spent most of her career on Capitol Hill said she does not know a single woman in her age group who has not experienced inappropriate conduct in the workplace.”
But many of us don’t know we know someone, because our culture encourages silence for the abused, while bravado is acceptable for the abuser.
Belatedly, society, including Congress, is coming to realize this abuse of power must stop.
The hearing was called to examine the mechanism Congress uses to deal with sexual misconduct. The mechanism is old, rusty and needs an overhaul.
“The present system protects the harasser and provides little benefit to the victim,” Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat who was victimized as a congressional staffer, said after the hearing. “The current process might have been “effective in the dark ages…We are way behind the times in terms of providing effective protection to the victims.”
Speier appeared as a hearing witness before joining other members on the dais.
“Since I started #MeTooCongress by sharing my own story, my office has been inundated with calls from current and former Hill staffers subjected to inexcusable behavior and sexual assault,” she testified. “From comments like ‘Are you going to be a good girl?,’ to harassers exposing their genitals, to victims having their private parts grabbed on the House floor, women and men have trusted me with their stories. All they asked in return was that we fix our abusive system and hold the perpetrators accountable.”
She outlined three steps: institute mandatory sexual harassment prevention and response training for members of Congress and their staffs, as called for in legislation she sponsored; conduct surveys every two years to understand the fullness of the problem and the effectiveness of reforms; and “reform the broken dispute resolution process.”
A resolution she introduced is appropriately named CEASE, for the Congressional Education About Sexual harassment Eradication.
After the hearing, Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said “Going forward, the House will adopt a policy of mandatory anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training for all Members and staff.”
The broken process was outlined in a letter Speier presented during the hearing from 1,500 former congressional staffers, men and women, to House and Senate leaders.
It complained about the dispute resolution process at the Congressional Office of Compliance (OOC), saying it “may actually discourage victims from filing a grievance because of the excessive waiting period it imposes on victims. The OOC requires an individual to wait at least 90 days from the alleged incident before the filing of a sexual harassment complaint. This includes requiring the complainant to undergo 30 days of mandatory counseling and 30 days of mandatory mediation between the employee and his or her employing office. Only if mediation is unsuccessful can the staff then pursue legal action.”
The signers cited a July 2016 CQ/Roll Call congressional staff survey indicating 40 percent of the women who responded said “sexual harassment is a problem on Capitol Hill” and one in six had been a sexual harassment target.
Making the prey of a sexual predator work in that office for 90 days before filing a complaint “is untenable,” Speier said. “They should not be placed in a hostile work environment once again.” This poor process doesn’t even cover congressional interns and fellows.
Citing Equal Employment Opportunity Commission data, Raskin said between 25 percent and 85 percent of women have suffered sexual harassment in the workplace. That range is too great to be meaningful, but even one in four is enraging.
“There is a tectonic shift taking place,” Raskin said, “in women’s unwillingness to put up with what prior generations of women were often forced to accept as ‘business-as-usual.’”
That’s true, but an even larger quake is needed among men who abuse women or are complicit in male supremacy behavior.
That wasn’t mentioned at the hearing, but that’s the real problem.