Comstock seeks to target sexual harassment on Hill

Barbara Comstock

Capitol Hill and Congress remain plagued by sexual harassers, two members of Congress told colleagues during a committee hearing in the House of Representatives  this week.

U.S. Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-McLean, spoke to the Administration Committee at a hearing Tuesday on the House’s policies and training on sexual harassment. Comstock relayed to the committee that she had heard of one incident in which a sitting congressman exposed himself to a female staff member at his home. Comstock said she did not know which congressman.

Reached by phone Wednesday, Comstock  expounded on sexual harassment in Congress involving members and staffers.

The notoriety of sexual harassment cases involving well-known people in Hollywood spurred Comstock to reach out to her colleagues and find out how Congress can improve its handling of such activities, she said. Comstock asked if fellow representatives could hold hearings on the subject.

“Our chairman on the House Administration Committee recognized the need to revise and certainly update our laws,” she recalled.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan on Tuesday mandated sexual harassment training for members of Congress and their staff, Comstock noted. She said she had already mandated training for her office staff members, and added that Congress also plans to revise its materials on sexual harassment and provide interactive seminars and programs.

Lawmakers also need to tackle the practice of settlement payments in harassment claims, transactions that neither taxpayers nor Congress know occur, Comstock said.

“There needs to be full accountability and … I don’t think we should have that,” Comstock said. “I don’t support that and I think that needs to be changed.”

Comstock said she plans to introduce a bill that would prohibit businesses from writing off the payments they make to settle sexual harassment claims. She said it remains unclear if people make payments using their own money after taxes or if they try to funnel the transaction through a business. Lawmakers, she said,  want to make sure people cannot do the latter at the taxpayers’ expense. Comstock also wants the U.S. Department of the Treasury to investigate some of the more recent settlements to make sure they did not go through a business.

“We have a process; we have things in place but they aren’t to the standards of the private sector, so they need to be upgraded,” Comstock said.

Lawmakers learned at the hearing that sexual harassment more often occurs between staff members, Comstock said.

The congresswoman recently spoke to Dorena Bertussi who, in 1988, filed the Hill’s first successful harassment complaint against a California congressman.  Comstock said she’s exploring Bertussi’s suggestion that Congress establish an ombudsman to serve victims of harassment.

“So we’re looking at a number of different options to improve the system and to protect the victims and just to have a more accessible process, but then also to prevent in the first place because, like the incident that I relayed, after that happened understandably she didn’t want to work with that person,” Comstock said.

The problem affects men and women, Comstock said.

“It’s not a women’s issue,” Comstock said. “This is a workplace issue. This is having successful workplaces. Everybody has daughters and mothers but also everybody here is an employer of people in their office and we have to have that zero tolerance so that all of us are better served, and most importantly the public is better served by us setting standards here that are more typical of a corporate environment.”

Comstock recalls she faced sexual harassment when she worked as a waitress years ago.

“Fortunately in Congress I haven’t but … as an intern, as a staffer, living in this area, knowing people on the Hill, I’ve certainly known people over the years and have been aware of that problem going on,” Comstock said. “Often times one of the most difficult things is when people say I don’t want to say anything about it, I don’t want to do anything about it and even when encouraged don’t want to come forward and that’s understandable, too, which is why I think it’s important we prevent it.”

U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-California, a sexual assault survivor and advocate, also testified at the hearing that she knew of at least two current members of Congress who commit sexual harassment. Comstock sits on the committee and said she also knew of a current male member of Congress who exposed himself to a female staffer. Representatives from the Office of House Employment Counsel and the Office of Compliance also testified during the hearing.

On Friday, Comstock weighed in on the growing number of allegations against Roy Moore, a Republican candidate running for U.S. Senate in Alabama. Comstock connected Moore to other high-profile cases of sexual harassment in her statement in which she called for Moore to drop out of the race and declared he “should not serve in the U.S. Senate.”

“Harvey Weinstein, Anthony Weiner, Roger Ailes, Roy Moore… No MOORE of this… 4 women have come forward with detailed stories about Roy Moore,” Comstock stated. “Their stories are confirmed through numerous sources who knew of the actions at the time or well before now. I believed the stories from the victims of Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes and others because they were substantiated and consistent with the stories of how sexual predators operate. To date, Roy Moore has not provided any credible explanation or response to the detailed allegations, particularly the allegations by a woman who was at the time a 14 year old girl and Roy Moore was a 32-year-old assistant district attorney. The defense from some of his supporters is beyond disturbing.”