Sexual Harassment Accusations in Congress Prompt Paul Ryan to Call for Prevention Training

Following multiple allegations of sexual harassment against current members of Congress, House Speaker Paul Ryan sent a memo Friday to House representatives urging them to undergo prevention training. 

"Every day, we set out to serve the American people, and be worthy of the trust and confidence they place in us," the email reads. "In recent weeks, reports of sexual harassment by public figures have been deeply disturbing to say the least. I have heard from members with real concerns about the House's policies." 

Anti–sexual harassment training is optional in Congress, but some lawmakers are working to change that. Earlier this week, Republican Senator Chuck Grassley wrote a letter to the Senate Rules Committee calling to make harassment training mandatory for all U.S. senators. His colleague Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) has also announced her own plans to introduce legislation that would not only make the trainings mandatory but would also streamline the investigation process for harassment complaints and create a new position for someone to handle those complaints. 

"You see time and again in institutions all around the country ... a culture where power and fear keep sexual assault and sexual harassment in the shadows," said Gillibrand. "Congress is no different."

Capitol Hill has been experiencing its own "Weinstein effect" over the past few weeks, with female members of Congress sharing their accounts of sexual misconduct.

The deluge of allegations began with Representative Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), who shared her account of being forcibly kissed by a congressional staff member on the Hill in a video she posted to Twitter in October. Speier too has repeatedly introduced legislation aimed at combating the problem of sexual harassment in Congress, but to no avail. 

Former Representatives Mary Bono (R-Calif.) and Hilda Solis (D-Calif.) as well as former Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and current Representative Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) were the latest to come forward with harassment allegations in a Wednesday Associated Press report

"When I was a very new member of Congress in my early 30s, there was a more senior member who outright propositioned me, who was married, and despite trying to laugh it off and brush it aside it, would repeat," Sanchez told the AP. "And I would avoid that member."

Sanchez declined to name the congressman—who still has his job on Capitol Hill—because she found it difficult to believe any good would come of it. 

“The problem is, as a member there’s no HR department you can go to; there’s nobody you can turn to," Sanchez said. "Ultimately they’re employed by their constituents."

There's plenty of evidence that speaks to Sanchez's cynicism about reporting sexual harassment on the Hill. 

If Sanchez wanted to file an official complaint against her harasser, she would first have to undergo months of required internal counseling and mediation, according to The Washington PostOnly after that would Sanchez's complaint reach the special congressional office, whose officials would be tasked with resolving Sanchez's case out of court.  

If Sanchez happened to reach a settlement, she would receive a confidential payout from a U.S. Treasury fund, which awarded a total of $15.2 million in settlements for Capitol Hill workplace misconduct between 1997 and 2014. 

For most Congress members, this protocol remains opaque. 

"A lot of people are confused about it," Alan Lescht, an attorney in Washington who takes on congressional harassment cases, told The Washington Post. "We'll get calls from people who work down on the Hill, and they're not all that clear as to what they should be doing."

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