Growing calls for reforms to sexual harassment policies in Congress

Calls to reform how Congress handles allegations of sexual harassment are gaining steam, as current and former lawmakers and staff push to overhaul an arcane and complex system that they argue doesn’t protect victims.

A group of former Hill aides have organized a signature-gathering campaign for a letter calling on congressional leaders to reform what they argue are “inadequate” sexual harassment policies in Congress. The calls for reform follow waves of allegations of sexual misconduct that have shaken industries and institutions, stemming from a series of bombshell reports earlier this fall regarding Hollywood executive Harvey Weinstein.

An email obtained by CNN Tuesday morning and signed by Travis Moore, a former legislative director for ex-Rep. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, asks recipients to add their names to a letter that would be sent to key congressional leaders later this week.

“The current policy requires victims to, among other things, spend 30 days in mandatory ‘counseling’ before the individual can file a grievance,” the letter states. “It is a process that experts say — intentionally or not — keeps victims from coming forward. It’s not OK.”

Currently, if a congressional staffer wants to file a formal complaint — they must first go through a lengthy, multi-tiered process that could drag out over months before an official complaint can even be formally lodged.

The accuser must first engage in 30 days of counseling with a legal counselor in the Office of Compliance. After 30 days, they can choose to go into mediation with a representative within the office with whom they’re lodging complaint against. That mediation would last at least 30 days. When mediation is finished, the accuser must wait 30 days — but not wait longer than 90 days. It is only then, after those steps, could the accuser officially file a formal complaint and pursue a hearing either with the Office of Compliance or Federal District Court, but not both.

Moore wrote in his email that he and the organizers had originally hoped to get at least 300 signers by Wednesday. (As of midday Tuesday, the letter appeared to have more than 360 signers.)

“Recognizing that it would be extremely difficult for current staff to advocate for changes themselves, given the political constraints, some of us decided to organize a letter from former staff asking for reform,” Moore wrote.

Reached on the phone Tuesday, Moore told CNN that he “always suspected” that sexual harassment was a widespread problem on Capitol Hill.

“You hear rumblings about it,” said Moore, who founded TechCongress after leaving Waxman’s office. When he recently reached out to friends about sending a letter to Hill leaders, he said the response was overwhelmingly supportive.

“Everybody I reached out to said, ‘Yes, this is an issue. We should write a letter,'” he said. “Current staff are really weary of being a part of stories. We felt an obligation to try and do something because we have the freedom.”

The letter comes as efforts are underway in the House and Senate to address the issue of sexual harassment on Capitol Hill, but it is not yet clear what changes, if any, those efforts may eventually lead to.

The House administration committee, the committee that oversees employment and daily logistical issues of the House of Representatives, has launched a review of the current sexual harassment policies and training and will hold a hearing on the topic November 14.

House Speaker Paul Ryan has called on members and staff to step up their sexual harassment training, writing a memo to staffs last week encouraging them to mandate training for their offices.

But Ryan’s call stops short of signing on to any legislative efforts underway that would change policy to mandate training.

In the House, multiple pieces of legislation have been proposed. The most prominent is from Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat who came out with her own allegations of sexual harassment when she was a young staffer on the Hill 40 years ago.

She introduced the first of two pieces of legislation last week with two Republican co-sponsors, Rep. Ryan Costello from Pennsylvania and Rep. Bruce Poliquin from Maine. Their bill would change current House policy to make sexual harassment training mandatory annually for all House members and their staff.

Speier is also gearing up to release a more comprehensive piece of legislation this week in the House which would address broader reforms to the complaint process within the Office of Compliance — complementary to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s legislation that will be introduced in the Senate.