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Harassment is ‘an open secret’ on Capitol Hill, former staffers say

Since the #MeToo movement began, seven members of Congress have resigned or retired following sexual harassment allegations. While there is near-universal agreement that the system on Capitol Hill is deeply flawed, Congress has not addressed its own rules for dealing with the problem. Lisa Desjardins talks with three former congressional staffers who were targeted about what should change.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Since the MeToo movement began last fall, seven members of Congress have resigned or retired after sexual harassment allegations.

    There is near universal agreement that the system for investigating such accusations on Capitol Hill is deeply flawed. Yet Congress has not addressed their own rules.

    Our Lisa Desjardins is here with this story — Lisa.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's right.

    Still today, Judy, if you complain of harassment on Capitol Hill, you face a 90-day waiting period and a system that everyone agrees is stacked against victims.

    Now, the House passed a bill three months ago to change this, overhaul it. But it has been frozen in the Senate.

    We talked to three former staffers who are pushing for change this, among many hundreds who say this is an outrage.

    Their names are Rebecca Weir, Anna Kain, and also Ally Steele.

    They haven't done much television. It was Anna's first interview. She's the staffer whose abuse led to the retirement of Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty.

    They began by telling their stories, starting with Ally Steele.

  • Ally Steele:

    Yes, so my experience was when I was an 18-year-old intern. And it was my first experience really in a real job.

    You know, I had heard some rumors about this member who ultimately groped me at the national — Democratic National Convention in Boston at an evening event.

    And, really, the message that was sent to me was that this was the cost of doing business. I was a young woman in politics, partly because, as I told people about my experience, I learned that this wasn't a surprise to many people; that this behavior generally and from this particular member was somewhat of an open secret.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    You two are nodding. What do you think? Is that similar?

  • Anna Kain:

    Yes.

    I think, for me, it was — I think the prevalence of harassment on the Hill is definitely very much an open secret.

    My story — the second year that I worked for Congresswoman Esty, I — a colleague who I had dated the year before became her chief of staff in 2014. And that began about 14 months of pretty consistent harassment, which was sexual harassment. It was personal and professional beratement, and kind of explosive screaming fits in the office that once included him punching me in the back in the office.

    And a year after I left the office, on May 5, 2016, he called me 53 times in a matter of just a few hours and threatened to find and kill me.

    And I think that event was so significant to me because it was quite literally what scared me into both coming forward, but also recognizing the extent to which I was abused in the office throughout the entire second year that I had worked there.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    So, when you had a complaint, Anna, did you know where to go right away? What did you do?

  • Anna Kain:

    I did nothing, both because of — I was being threatened by my then chief of staff from coming forward.

    I had worried about the member that I worked for's career and reelection. We had trainings on things like chemical leaks, but I had never participated in a sexual harassment training, which I think sends a very strong message to staffers about what is important and what is even worthy of being part of the conversation.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Rebecca?

  • Rebecca Weir:

    My own personal experience was with my own member of Congress, a man who I respected.

    It was the August recess. I had been working on a proposal. I went into his office. I said — I made the proposal. He was open to it, which was great. I was feeling really good about it. And, as I got up to leave, he stopped me, and said, "My God, Rebecca, you just look amazing today. Just really stunning. Would you mind twirling for me?"

    I was stunned by the request, but I didn't really know what to do. I was young and inexperienced. And I complied. He's my member of Congress, and here he is asking me to do something. So I just — I did it. Felt awful about it immediately after.

    I went and sat down at my desk, tried to regroup, when I get a phone call from our Washington office, saying, "Hey, Gary," my member of Congress, "just called, and he said you were to have a bonus immediately. Don't know what you did, but congratulations."

    Of course, I knew exactly what I had done.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    You felt like an object.

  • Rebecca Weir:

    Totally. I felt like a prostitute. I mean, here I am getting paid not because of, you know, my professional, you know, accolades or my worth, but because of how I looked and how I made him feel.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Is there a reason you think Congress and the power structure there is different?

  • Rebecca Weir:

    I think there's a couple systemic problems with just how the Hill functions, and as opposed to traditional employers.

    You have — especially on the House side, where there's turnover every two years — problem number two is that it is so individualized, either by party or by state, region. And so it's — there's not really, again, a comprehensive approach to this.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Each office, each member of Congress is in control of the rules for their office.

  • Rebecca Weir:

    Correct. Each member of Congress is really the employer. It's not — you're not working for Congress. You're working for your member.

  • Ally Steele:

    People come to Washington, D.C., because they want to work on the Hill. You will work really hard, as we have all mentioned, to get to the next level.

    So there is a real desire to be there, and I think a willingness to put up with behavior in general that shouldn't — shouldn't be accepted.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    How do you take this idea that, even after all these conversations, those who are elected to run this country have not been able to change a system that they all admit is flawed in their own offices?

  • Ally Steele:

    I was really moved by what the House did in January. As a former Hill staffer, I was a little cynical about Congress' ability to quickly get things done.

    But they did. They responded really quickly to this moment and with a bill that makes a lot of really important changes. And so it's been dismaying to see it held up in the Senate for so long.

  • Anna Kain:

    Yes, I think it's very frustrating that the Senate won't act on — to pass reform on this issue.

    I think it's been made very clear that this isn't a Republican or Democratic issue. This isn't a men's issue or a women's issue. I think this is — and this isn't a vague or hypothetical issue either. This is a very practical issue that affects day to day the people — the safety and well-being of the people who work for these representatives.

    And I think they have — they absolutely have a responsibility to act.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    There are some people who say this conversation has actually gone too far, and that now things which are very minor are being considered to be harassment.

    How do you respond to that?

  • Ally Steele:

    In terms of Congress acting on this legislation, I don't have a concern that it's going too far at all. I think, in fact, it's simply making changes that are long overdue.

  • Rebecca Weir:

    I don't think it's gone too far. It's never a bad thing for people to reflect on their own privilege, their own status, their own power, and try and see their interactions through a different lens.

    And I think all these little things, we're not talking about them individually. You know, an insensitive comment here, you know, whatever there, that's not what we're talking about. It's them together, taken as a whole, really encage us and inhibit us from going forward and finding our full potential. That's what we're talking about.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Are you worried about current staffers on the Hill? Where would you recommend they go to complain? Is it even clear yet that they have a place to go?

  • Ally Steele:

    Well, I think that the — that's why it's so important for the Senate to act right now, is that it is unclear what the current environment is for women who experienced misconduct on the Hill.

    And if I were a current staffer on the Hill, I'm not sure that I would know whether reporting was going to come at a risk of retaliation.

  • Anna Kain:

    Ultimately, this is a conversation that should be had, and I think it should be had out loud.

    And I think, in order for anything to change either legislatively or culturally, we just need to keep talking about it and having these conversations.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Ally Steele, Anna Kain, Rebecca Weir, thank you very much for talking with us.

  • Rebecca Weir:

    Thank you for having us.

  • Anna Kain:

    Thank you.

  • Ally Steele:

    Thanks.

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