By Marian Currinder
The House Committee on Administration recently released additional statistics on harassment in the congressional workplace. Committee Chairman Gregg Harper (R-MS) described the newly compiled data as part of the committee’s ongoing and comprehensive review of “the laws, procedures, and resources concerning workplace harassment in the House.” The Office of Compliance (OOC) data covers settlements and awards paid by type of claims from cases originating in a House office from FY2003 to FY2007.
Last December, as the #MeToo movement spread from Hollywood to Capitol Hill, the committee released similar data covering FY2008 to FY2012 and FY2013 to the present. Since then, seven members accused of sexual harassment have either resigned or said they would not seek reelection. That number is likely to expand, as the Washington Post and CNN are reportedly teaming up to expose as many as 40 additional sexual harassment cases involving members of Congress.
The latest revelation involves a secret $220,000 payout made by the OOC to Winsome Packer, a woman who accused Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL) of sexual harassment. Hastings denied the claim and the case dragged on for four years before it was finally settled in 2014. Packer recently decided to break her confidentiality agreement in order to speak out about her experience. Meanwhile, Hastings says he has no objections to releasing the case information because he believes he has nothing to hide.
While Packer and Hastings disagree about the sexual harassment claim, they agree that the law governing how congressional harassment cases are handled must be fixed. Lawmakers are expected to soon introduce bipartisan legislation to fix the process for handling harassment claims. There is widespread agreement on Capitol Hill that the process must be made more transparent and empower congressional staff to come forward with harassment claims.
For too long, congressional staffers have chosen not to pursue harassment claims against their bosses for fear of hurting their own careers. The 1995 Congressional Accountability Act provides members with legal counsel should they face claims of harassment, discrimination or retaliation. But as Kevin Mulshine notes here, congressional staffers have no similar legal support. “Private sector and federal employees have the EEOC and agency EEO offices,” according to Mulshine. “It’s time that covered congressional staff have independent counsel to protect their interests and livelihoods from unfair and illegal employment practices, reprisal and harassment.”
For staffers who do successfully pursue harassment claims against members, a “win” isn’t always a win. Like other female staffers who have come forward, Winsome Packer faced an incredibly challenging process and severe consequences. “I lost my career,” (she) said. “I lost one-third of my pension. My security clearance. And I lost many of my friends.”
Marian Currinder is a senior fellow in governance at the R Street Institute and edits LegBranch.com.