Sexual harassment hits Congress; Rep. Holmes Norton moves to extend protections
Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) speaks on Capitol Hill. Susan Walsh | AP

WASHINGTON — The spreading revelations of sexual harassment on the job – covering everywhere from Hollywood to the Service Employees – have hit Capitol Hill, as lawmakers and aides step forward with revelations.

And the mess has led Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., a veteran civil rights crusader who was the first chair of the federal Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, to do something about it. As EEOC chair, she helped write the first anti-harassment rules.

The EEOC fields sexual harassment claims, but Congress exempted itself from having to report them – or even effectively deal with them. Norton’s bill would bring Congress under anti-harassment laws private firms must follow.

Harassment revelations have ensnared multiple men in powerful positions, who used those posts and power to take advantage of female subordinates, subjecting them to everything from inappropriate “feeling up” to forced kisses to rape.

Among those forced out of jobs due to their past sexual harassment were movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, top Fox News personalities Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes, National Public Radio editor Michael Oreskes and New Republic editor and columnist Leon Weseltier.

The Service Employees have suspended one department head without pay and forced another to leave due to harassment claims from staffers. The AFL-CIO imposed a strong anti-harassment policy at headquarters, after a union grievance, and publicized it at its convention.

But one harasser, who boasted about it on tape, was elected president: Donald Trump.

Stories of lawmakers taking advantage of their staffers, especially younger women, have plagued Congress for years, but solons exempted themselves from punishment. In rare cases, with teenaged pages, lawmakers were caught and reprimanded. Some lost elections.

Now Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., has stepped forward with a video describing harassment on the job when she was a top congressional aide. And several female senators revealed condescending, leering sexual innuendoes from male colleagues. Speier will testify at a November 14 hearing on harassment on the Hill.

Norton and Speier are offering legislation to try to cut down the abuse.

Norton would bring Congress under the Occupational Safety and Health Act and under federal laws banning sexual harassment on the job. Congress exempted itself from those laws when it passed a statute in 1995 putting itself under 13 other major civil rights and labor laws, including the minimum wage and overtime pay.

“It exempted the legislative branch from important notice and training provisions, and altogether omitted important substantive and administrative protections,” she explained. Norton’s legislation would protect whistleblowers, add anti-retaliation provisions and put Congress under OSHA.

It also would give the now-toothless Office of Congressional Compliance, which is supposed to protect Capitol Hill workers, subpoena power to probe sexual harassment and OSHA violations. And lawmakers would have to post notices in offices of workers’ rights under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Americans With Disabilities Act and anti-age discrimination laws.

“As sexual harassment takes an increasingly high profile, it is impossible to justify exempting congressional offices from the comprehensive provisions Congress requires of private employers and federal agencies, especially sexual harassment laws that protect workers, such as requiring employers to post workers’ rights or to conduct training,” she said.

That includes protecting staffers. “In a work environment such as Congress, where powerful figures often play an outsized role with a sense of their own importance, sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination must be met head on, especially by Members of Congress, who have compelled other institutions to observe strict standards.”

Speier’s bill would require annual sexual harassment awareness training for lawmakers and staff, who would have to certify to the House Ethics Committee they completed the course. There is such training now, but it’s voluntary.

Speier is also writing a bill to further strengthen the Office of Congressional Compliance by removing its current requirement that sexually harassed staffers first take part in counseling and mediation with their bosses before formally complaining about harassment. The required counseling with your boss discourages reporting of harassment and abuse, she says.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.