Debra Katz and Alexis Ronickher discuss Capitol Hill’s Broken Sexual Harassment Reporting System

October 27, 2017

Katz Banks Kumin partners Debra Katz and Alexis Ronickher were quoted in articles for the New York TimesWashington Post and Politico on the different rules that Congress abides by regarding reporting and addressing sexual harassment. The pieces examine how and why Congress has failed to protect its employees and aides.

The current system dates back to the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995, which established the Office of Compliance (OOC) – the entity that handles harassment complaints and enforces employee protection laws. But due to the CAA’s poor setup of the OOC, as well as the OOC’s own failings, the office has not adequately provided justice for victims who have sought its help.

Before pursuing an official OOC administrative hearing, victims must initiate a complaint, complete 30 days of counseling, wait for a 15-day “cooling off period” to expire, and then attend mediation sessions. All of which must be done without publically speaking out, at risk of being sanctioned and having their case dropped.

“It’s the strap of silence in my opinion that helps foster a broken system,” Ms. Ronickher told Politico, “The fact that you can’t tell anyone that you filed a request for counseling or that you’re in mediation, that everything that goes on there has to be confidential.” It’s an environment that makes women feel alone and vulnerable, and is not at all conducive to victims “coming together and say(ing), ‘I’m coming forward, you should come forward.’”

Additionally, similar to sexual harassment cases that have been exposed recently in Hollywood and at Fox News, employees on Capitol Hill sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) and confidentiality clauses as part of their contracts. While these clauses cannot prevent anybody from reporting sexual harassment to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, there is often confusion and hesitation on behalf of those who want to speak out, but fear legal backlash.

Also like the Weinstein and Bill O’Reilly cases, there exists clear power dynamics that force victims into making a decision to either seek justice or advance their career. “There is a sense that going forward with an allegation like this would be completely the end of any career working for anybody on the Hill – and it undoubtedly would be,” says Ms. Katz in the Washington Post.

For every year since 2014, Rep. Jackie Speier of California has introduced a bill that would overhaul the OOC. And despite politicians speaking out against this culture that seems to condone harassment, they have yet to pass it.

Ms. Katz was also quoted in a pieces for Roll Call and ABC 7 News – WJLA on the relative silence on Capitol Hill from victims of sexual harassment since Rep. Speier called on women to speak out, in Newsweek and National Memo on the implied reprecussions for victims who choose to go public, and in a different New York Times article on accusations leveled against Representative John Conyers Jr.

Read the full New York Times piece here, Washington Post story here, and Politico article here.