WASHINGTON — A senior Senate staff member is accused of trying to tug open a junior aide’s wrap dress at a bar; she said he asked why she was “holding out.” A former aide says a congressman grabbed her backside, then winked as he walked away. A district worker said a House member told her to twirl in a dress for him, then gave her a bonus when he liked what he saw.
As the nation at large deals with lurid stories of sexual harassment, Congress is only beginning to grapple with tales of sexual aggression that have long been fixtures of work life on Capitol Hill. On Tuesday, the Committee on House Administration will convene a hearing on harassment in Congress, putting the halls of the Capitol under scrutiny alongside the hotels of Hollywood, the kitchens of New Orleans, the board rooms of Silicon Valley and the suites of New York’s media giants.
In the run-up, about 1,500 former Capitol Hill aides have signed an open letter to House and Senate leaders to demand that Congress implement mandatory harassment training and revamp the Office of Compliance, the legislative branch’s opaque in-house adjudicator.
“The Congress of the United States should be the one work environment where people are treated with respect, where there isn’t a hostile work environment,” said Representative Jackie Speier, Democrat of California, who will testify on Tuesday about her efforts to deal with harassment in the Capitol. “And frankly, it’s just the opposite. It’s probably among the worst.”
In more than 50 interviews, lawyers, lobbyists and former aides told The New York Times that sexual harassment has long been an occupational hazard for those operating in Washington politics, and victims on Capitol Hill are forced to go through far more burdensome avenues to seek redress than their counterparts in the private sector.
Under federal law, complainants must undergo a confidential process, where co-workers who might be able to provide corroborating evidence are excluded. They often must wait about three months before submitting an official complaint, yet must file one no later than 180 days after the episode. Once filed, victims then must submit to up to 30 days of mandatory counseling and complete another 30 days of mediation.
If mediation fails, the person then must wait 30 more days before seeking an administrative hearing or filing a lawsuit in Federal District Court.
“The system is so stacked,” said Debra Katz, a Washington lawyer who often works on sexual harassment cases. “They don’t want people to come forward.”
With such rigid policies, even the most dogged complainants may find no avenue for resolution. In one case, a fellow at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, M. Reese Everson, brought a complaint against a House member to the Office of Compliance. But she said the office told her it could not handle her case because, as a fellow and not a full-time employee, she did not fall under its jurisdiction.
She ended up filing her complaints with the District of Columbia government, where they have languished for more than two years.
Few deny the growing sense that Congress is, for many women, a hostile workplace. Last Thursday, the Senate approved a resolution that would create mandatory anti-harassment training for all Senate employees and interns, and would require training every two years. At least two other pieces of legislation that would make the changes even broader are in progress.
Kristin Nicholson, a former chief of staff to Representative Jim Langevin, Democrat of Rhode Island, said Congress has not gone far enough.
“We think training needs to be in-person to be more effective,” said Ms. Nicholson, who now directs the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University, “and we’re asking for reforms to the opaque process for reporting and resolving harassment claims.”
In interviews, few who were harassed said they were never even informed of the Office of Compliance’s existence.
Rebecca Weir, a 39-year-old lawyer in Washington, had never heard of the office in 2001 when she said former Representative Gary Miller, Republican of California, asked her to twirl for him in his Diamond Bar, Calif., office.
”He said, ‘My God, you look amazing today. Just stunning.’ And he was kind of leering at me, and then he asked me to twirl,” Ms. Weir recalled. “I was stunned, but I was young and dumb and here’s a member of Congress that I’m working for asking me to twirl in his office. So I did.”
Ms. Weir said Mr. Miller’s chief of staff called from Washington soon after with some news.
“‘Well Rebecca, I don’t know what you did, but Gary just called me and said you can have a $1,250 bonus, effective immediately,’” Ms. Weir recalled.
On Monday morning, a woman who identified herself as Mr. Miller’s wife, Cathy Miller, denied the allegations. “I know my husband,” she said before adding that the claim was “yellow journalism.”
There also was no mandatory training in place on Katherine Cichy’s 27th birthday in 2013. Ms. Cichy, then an aide for now-retired Senator Tim Johnson, Democrat of South Dakota, was walking through Union Station with colleagues when Ms. Cichy’s direct supervisor repeatedly called her “hot.”
Ms. Cichy reported the episode to her then-chief of staff, who she said made light of the incident, saying “it is what it is.”
Months later, Ms. Cichy took a job in another office. The man who harassed her stayed in Mr. Johnson’s office, as did his former chief of staff, Drey Samuelson, who said on Friday that he’d warned the offending employee, “I would fire him, and it never happened again.” He said that he did not make light of the episode.
“Bottom line,” Ms. Cichy said, “my boss told me I was hot, and I had to sit in a room every day and work with him. And they didn’t do anything about it. Nothing.”
For women lobbyists, sexual suggestions appear to be part of the price of access.
In her 40 years on the Hill, Laura W. Murphy, the former head of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington legislative office, said she endured a number of sexually suggestive incidents as generations of lawmakers cycled in and out of Congress. In the 1980s, a House member, whose name she would not share, tried to kiss her in the produce aisle at a Capitol Hill grocery store. In the early 2000s, she said a lawmaker asked her for a working dinner, then propositioned her for sex.
“At first it was about work,” Ms. Murphy, 62, said. “But then it devolved into a very blatant overture to have sex.”
Like many women, Ms. Murphy did not report the incidents in part because she believed her career could be negatively impacted and because she wasn’t sure where she could turn.
All of the women now coming forward are putting pressure on the Office of Compliance, whose processes date back to the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995. Between 1997 and 2014, the United States Treasury paid $15.2 million in 235 awards and settlements for Capitol Hill workplace violations under the office’s byzantine procedures, according to a recent Washington Post analysis of the Office of Compliance.
Susan Tsui Grundmann, the office’s executive director, said that the office has received an increase in requests for harassment training in the past two weeks, and that the five-member board has repeatedly recommended since 2010 that Congress implement regular mandatory harassment training.
Bradford Fitch, president and chief executive of the Congressional Management Foundation, a group that helps lawmakers and staff run their offices, said sexual harassment is vastly underreported in congressional offices.
This has been the case for decades: In 1989, Alice Cain was 22 and three months into a job as a chief of staff’s assistant for Paul Simon, the late Democratic congressman from Illinois, when one of his top donors groped her and kissed her at a fund-raiser held at a Washington hotel.
Ms. Cain, who is now 50 and works for a nonprofit organization, said that several other women in her office had similar experiences with that donor, whom she declined to name out of respect for his family. But she said it was years before the women spoke to each other about the episodes.
“If I go into my boss’s office and say, ‘Oh, this guy did this to me’ — I don’t want to lose my job,” Ms. Cain said. “I think all of us made that calculation.”
She said she decided to share her story belatedly “for the 22-year-olds now.”
Others are now reconsidering past experiences, episodes previously brushed off as playful or not a big deal, that register now as assault.
Hannah Hudson was in her early 20s and working for a Democratic congressman from Oklahoma in 2009 when she was joined on a work trip by staff members from a Republican senator’s office. At a work outing, she said a senior aide for that senator attempted to tug open her wrap dress, which she’d pinned closed, asking, “Why are you holding out on us?”
Ms. Hudson, who is now 32 and works as a photographer, didn’t think to report the incident. She said she tried to brush it off because she felt that what happened to her was not as bad as what had happened to other people.
She does remember feeling grateful when a male colleague who silently witnessed the incident pulled her aside privately to ask if she was all right.
“How much of a patriarchal society do we live in that the person who came up to me in private and said, ‘Oh, are you O.K.?’ is the hero?” she asked.
“That’s the nice guy in the story.”