After Republican Rep. Tim Murphy had an extramarital affair exposed, along with the pro-life politician’s advice to his mistress to get an abortion, Paul Ryan intervened to get Murphy to resign immediately rather than retire at the end of his term. Only after Murphy and his top aide Susan Mosychuk found themselves out of power did tales of the abusive environment in his congressional office come to light. Like stories coming out of Hollywood and the news media, the toxic office was an “open secret” on Capitol Hill.
Not long afterward, I wrote: “It’s not just the Weinsteins in Hollywood whose abuse gets excused as an “open secret,” either. Who are the other Murphys and Mosychuks in Washington DC?” Good luck in finding out. We don’t hear about sexual harassment scandals on Capitol Hill for a good reason — Congress passed a law two decades ago that makes it all but impossible for staffers to pursue such cases in public:
Under a law in place since 1995, accusers may file lawsuits only if they first agree to go through months of counseling and mediation. A special congressional office is charged with trying to resolve the cases out of court.
When settlements do occur, members do not pay them from their own office funds, a requirement in other federal agencies. Instead, the confidential payments come out of a special U.S. Treasury fund.
Congressional employees have received small settlements compared to the amounts some public figures pay out. Between 1997 and 2014, the U.S. Treasury has paid $15.2 million in 235 awards and settlements for Capitol Hill workplace violations, according to the congressional Office of Compliance. The statistics do not break down the exact nature of the violations.
Remember all of the news coverage of these complaints? Neither does anyone else. The 1995 law came as a result of the scandal around Republican Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon, who was forced to resign in disgrace after several women accused him of sexual harassment and assault. Supposedly, the idea behind the Congressional Accountability Act was to provide channels for alleged victims to pursue justice. In practice, however, it operates as a way to avoid accountability and to protect members, all while requiring much more openness about private-sector complaints of harassment.
What happens when a complaint is filed with the Office of Compliance (OOC)? The victim has to undergo three months of counseling before the complaint moves forward. And that assumes the victim even knows where to go, as there are no requirements for congressional offices to brief employees on the issue:
Lawmakers and congressional aides are not required to undergo sexual harassment training — a shortcoming even the office that handles complaints says should be changed. And victims must submit to as long as three months of mandated “counseling” and “mediation,” as well as what one lawyer involved in such cases called a “cooling off period,” before filing a complaint against an alleged perpetrator.
That’s assuming they’re even aware of how to lodge a grievance.
One former staffer who said she was sexually harassed by a colleague years ago told POLITICO she didn’t know where to turn at the time. She’d never heard of the Office of Compliance, or OOC, the entity that exists to handle harassment complaints and enforce workplace protection laws for the legislative branch. When she called a congressional committee that deals with administrative issues to inquire about filing a complaint, she said, she was turned away without any guidance.
“I didn’t even know it existed as a resource,” the ex-staffer said of the compliance office. “You don’t have an HR Department on the Hill. There’s no one place that you go. Nobody on the Hill has any idea how you report and deal with sexual harassment.”
Under this system, sexual harassment and other abuse can thrive — and as we saw in Murphy’s office, does thrive unchecked until the elected official leaves office. It’s a system almost guaranteed to allow Capitol Hill to act as a hothouse for such activity. In power structures without accountability, the worst impulses of people will emerge, with the behavior getting worse the higher up in the power structure it occurs.
Congress needs to hold itself accountable to the same laws and precedents as the people it serves. If we’re talking about Weinstein, Toback, and Halperin, we have to talk about Capitol Hill too — as the behavior of our elected representatives is our responsibility.
Update: I misidentified Bob Packwood as a Democrat. He was, of course, a liberal Republican. Thanks to Michael Bates for the correction, and it has been changed above. My apologies.