Sexual harassment in the halls of Congress

Legal doctrines condemning the extortion of sexual favors as a condition of employment or job advancement and other sexually offensive workplace behaviors resulting in a “hostile environment” have evolved from judicial decisions under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and other federal equal employment opportunity laws. The earlier judicial focus on economic detriment or quid pro quo harassment — that is, making submission to sexual demands a condition of job benefits — has largely given way to Title VII claims alleging harassment that creates an “intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment.”

One such hostile work environment for women is the halls of Congress. For example, in 2006, Republican Rep. Mark Foley of Florida resigned after being accused of sexually harassing teenagers who served as pages. In 2010, Democratic Rep. Eric Massa of New York resigned after aides accused him of making unwanted sexual overtures. In 2015, GOP Rep. Blake Farenthold of Texas settled a lawsuit brought by a former aide who’d accused him of sexual harassment. Affairs with aides, meanwhile, led to the resignations of two other Republicans, Rep. Mark Souder of Indiana, in 2010, and Sen. John Ensign of Nevada, in 2011. In a 2016 survey by Congressional Quarterly, four out of 10 women reported that they saw sexual harassment as a problem in Congress while one in six had personally been victimized.

In 1995, Congress enacted The Congressional Accountability Act (CAA) aimed at ensuring its staffers enjoy the same workplace rights as those in the private sector. Sexual misconduct claims of violation of the CAA must go through a mandatory, multi-step dispute resolution process supervised by the Office of Compliance. All employees must follow established dispute resolution procedures in order to process their claims under the CAA.

The process starts with a 30-day cooling-off period where the parties continue going to work while being counseled about workplace rights. Then there would be a 15-day waiting period during which to decide whether to bring this to mediation. If the accuser chose mediation, they would be required to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Mediation would last for 30 more days. When that period ended, there would be 30 more days for a “cooling-off” period before a worker could file a formal complaint. For details, see Dispute Resolution Process – Filing a Claim on the Office of Compliance website.

Additional resources include a CAA FAQ, CAA Handbook and Office of Compliance rules and procedures. Here is the list of annual settlements of all CAA claims, not just sexual harassment ones, by year with total annual settlement amounts for all workplace disputes. — Joe

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