Lawmakers: We don't know how widespread sexual harassment is on the Hill

me too congress sexual assault harassment orig bw_00011922
me too congress sexual assault harassment orig bw_00011922

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Story highlights

  • Sexual harassment allegations in Congress go through the Office of Compliance
  • Capitol Hill is catching up to a cultural change that has swept the globe
Watch CNN's town hall event moderated by CNN anchor Alisyn Camerota on Thursday at 9 p.m. ET.

(CNN)Lawmakers in Congress are furiously drafting legislation to fix the archaic sexual harassment reporting rules on Capitol Hill, but a troubling realization is coming into focus: The true extent of the problem is being shielded by the current system in place.

Multiple congressional offices tell CNN their attempts to find out the actual number of sexual harassment complaints that have been reported, who the complaints are filed against and the amount of money paid out in settlements have been rebuffed. A renewed focus on the sensitive issue comes as some Capitol Hill staffers are starting to speak out about what has for so many decades been a taboo subject in Washington, helping to paint an anecdotal picture of the problem.
    Put simply: No one, not even members, have truly been able to quantify the problem.
    "Unless you have that, there's no incentive for members to hold people accountable," Tracy Manzer, a spokeswoman for Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, told CNN.
    That Capitol Hill is under sharper scrutiny follows a groundswell of recent sexual harassment accusations that have shined a spotlight on alleged inappropriate behavior and remarks made by powerful men in business, Hollywood and politics.

    Transparency in the Office of Compliance

    As multiple lawmakers are now drafting legislation, much of the focus has been on what changes can be made to the process of the Office of Compliance -- the little-known agency on Capitol Hill responsible for handling sexual harassment complaints and settlements, which many privately say is completely inadequate in handling these accusations.
    Beyond a complicated and cumbersome process of reporting sexual harassment allegations that many lawmakers would like to see rebooted, there are calls for more transparency and plenty of finger-pointing at the office.
    The current system in place does not require the OOC to make public the number of sexual harassment complaints, number of settlements reached, the dollar figure of those settlements or which offices are being complained about. Congressional aides say this is giving unintentional cover to the worst offenders in Congress.
    The OOC says they do not take the recent criticism personally.
    "We have heard a number of things being said about our process, we have pretty thick skin," Susan Tsui Grundmann, executive director of the OOC told CNN, "We know the comments made are directed by the process ... and not an attack on our office."
    The OOC biannually comes out with recommendations for Congress of changes they feel need to be made to the process and they have been pushing for years to make sexual harassment training mandatory for employees. But they have not taken a public position on the issues of transparency that recent revelations on Capitol Hill have highlighted.
    Many members of Congress drafting legislation are also looking at where the money is coming from if an accuser reaches settlement with a member's office.
    Once a settlement is reached, the money is not paid out of the individual member's office but rather comes out of a fund set up to handle this within the US Treasury -- meaning taxpayers are footing the bill.
    The OOC does compile a report of the total amount of awards and settlements paid out of the fund at Treasury each fiscal year, a dollar figure that could reveal the extent of the problem on Capitol Hill, but it is not available in the public record, nor broken down by type of settlement -- meaning monetary reporting on sexual harassment settlements is lumped in with all sorts of other work place issues such as Fair Labor Standards Act cases, back pay cases and compensatory damages, sources within the office tell CNN.
    CNN has learned that the US Treasury has paid out $15 million in total settlements since 1997, according to a Congressional aide. But how much of that $15 million has been money paid to sexual harassment cases is unknown due to the complex reporting process.

    Legislative solutions being written

    These issues have been the focus of the several pieces of legislation being written currently on Capitol Hill.
    In the last month, nearly half a dozen pieces of legislation have been crafted by the House and the Senate aiming to increase transparency, accountability and boosting up the requirements for sexual harassment training on Capitol Hill.
    Legislation by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley would mandate "sexual harassment prevention training for all employees of the Senate and calls for an anonymous survey to be administered by the Sergeant at Arms that will gather information about instances of sexual harassment or related behavior in the Senate."
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    Similar legislation by Speier has been introduced in the House. And she is also gearing up to release a more comprehensive piece of legislation by next week, which would address broader reforms to the complaint and transparency process within the OOC, including potentially how settlements are reported.
    Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York is also putting final touches on legislation that she hopes to introduce in the next few days, according to aides. She has been in contact with Speier across the rotunda, and has also been speaking with Republican colleagues with the hope of garnering co-sponsors for her bill from across the aisle.
    Her proposal would subject lawmakers, staff and interns, to mandatory training, allow interns and others to file complaints from the OOC and require congressional offices to conduct climate surveys in an effort to better understand workplace problems on the Hill. It would also make key changes to the current process that OOC uses to handle inquiries that it receives, including making the existing "mediation" period optional.

    A problem in media, politics and beyond

    CNN will host a town hall Thursday on sexual harassment, moderated by CNN's "New Day" anchor Alisyn Camerota.
    The event will feature former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson, whose decision to publicly accuse the network's powerful ex-chairman, Roger Ailes, of sexual harassment was a catalyst that unleashed a flood of similar accusations in media. (Carlson has since settled with Fox News' parent company).
    Other participants in the discussion will include Anita Hill, the attorney and professor who made allegations of sexual harassment against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in the 1990s; one of many women who recently accused disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein of sexual misconduct; and Tarana Burke, who started the use of term #MeToo in relation to the discussion of sexual abuse and harassment in the aftermath of the Weinstein controversy.
    Gillibrand and former Rep. Mary Bono, both of whom have revealed that they experienced sexist or inappropriate behavior from male colleagues, will also join the town hall.
    And Camerota also brings her own experience of harassment in the workplace to the evening: the former Fox News anchor revealed in April that she, too, was sexually harassed by Ailes during her time at the network.
    In recent months, open discussion about the widespread prevalence sexual harassment and predatory behavior in the entertainment and media industries have captured headlines and upended careers. Weinstein, the award-winning and legendary film executive, now faces dozens of accusations that range from unwelcome advances to rape. Since Weinstein's story came to light, other directors, producers and actors have also come under scrutiny. Weinstein has denied all allegations of non-consensual sex made against him.
    Allegations are also beginning to crop up about journalists. Last month, CNN reported that multiple women have accused veteran journalist Mark Halperin of sexual harassment -- a story that has led to Halperin losing multiple lucrative contracts in the industry. Halperin has apologized for some of his behavior but has denied some of the allegations against him.
    But it's not clear whether a similar day of reckoning is imminent on Capitol Hill, a place that is known for widespread sexual harassment or coercive behavior -- but where such behavior is rarely discussed out in the open. In recent conversations, multiple Hill staffers and Washington veterans told CNN that that it is difficult to come forward with allegations against bosses -- particularly lawmakers -- on the Hill, for fear of repercussions and damaging career prospects, and due to a slow, cumbersome OOC process they say discourages people from coming forward.