The House voted unanimously on Wednesday to mandate sexual harassment training for members and staff, even as the Capitol was being rocked by sexual harassment allegations against several lawmakers.
The resolution, sponsored by Reps. Barbara Comstock, R-Va., and Jackie Speier, D-Calif., will require all House lawmakers, officers, staff, and interns to attend anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training sessions during every session of Congress. The Senate approved a similar harassment training measure on Nov. 9.
Lawmakers approved the measure by voice vote, and no one objected.
“There can be zero tolerance for this behavior,” said Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-Maine.
During debate on the resolution, Comstock offered some details of the harassment that has been part of the male-dominated Congress for decades. Former Rep. Charlie Wilson, D-Texas, Comstock recalled, "openly bragged about hiring staff based on looks and breast size."
Comstock also referenced Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore., who was forced to resign in 1995 after it was revealed he had been harassing his female employees for years.
“I do believe this is a watershed moment,” Comstock said.
It may not be the last measure in the House designed to address sexual harassment. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., promised a “comprehensive” examination of the issue, beginning with a public hearing next month on the Office of Compliance, which is responsible for handling sexual harassment claims and subsequent payouts.
Lawmakers approved the harassment training measure following the revelation that some unnamed lawmakers have made unwanted sexual advances at female employees. It was also recently disclosed that Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., who has served in Congress since 1965, has been accused of a pattern of sexual misconduct and paid a harassment claim out of his taxpayer-funded office budget.
"Today marks the beginning of much needed change," said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley, D-N.Y. "This is not and cannot be the last stop."
Comstock's resolution does not go as far as other proposals that would require the disclosure of who in Congress has paid harassment settlements, and ban the use of federal funds to pay harassment claims.
Speier wrote a bill that would disclose the offices of lawmakers who pay sexual harassment claims. Speier’s bill would also reform the cumbersome and secretive process for reporting harassment in the legislative branch.
“Today’s bill is an important step in the right direction,” Speier said. “But let’s not fool ourselves. It’s a baby step.”
Speier used the debate to recall an incident involving a lawmaker walking up behind a female employee on the House floor, grinding up against her and sticking his tongue in her ear. It likely happened while other lawmakers were present, Speier said.
“We do have a problem, members,” Speier said, “And we must address it.”
Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., said he is writing legislation that would “unseal the settlement records, bar the use of tax dollars to pay harassment claims against members and staff, prohibit members from using their office budgets to camouflage settlement payments, and require reimbursement of the taxpayer by members and staff who have had settlements paid due to their misconduct.”
The federal government has paid more than $17 million to settle claims in the past two decades against the entire legislative branch for a variety of workplace violations, including sexual harassment. The government’s Office of Compliance does not disclose how much of the money is spent specifically on sexual harassment claims against House or Senate lawmakers and their staff.
Sexual misconduct allegations have gripped the Capitol in recent weeks.
Rep. Al Franken, D-Minn., is accused by several women of groping them during photo sessions. A picture of Franken surfaced showing him making a groping move at his sleeping USO tour partner while on a military flight in 2006.
Republicans, meanwhile, have threatened an ethics investigation if Roy Moore, the GOP candidate for Senate in Alabama, wins his Dec. 12 special election. Moore is accused of sexual misconduct with underage teenage girls and seeking to date teenagers while in his 30s.