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Sexual Harassment Spotlight Shines on Capitol Hill

As sexual harassment rocks other industries, Congress moves forward on making incremental changes in how the institution handles complaints.
Image: Democratic Senator from Minnesota Amy Klobuchar and Democratic Senator from Virginia Mark Warner
Democratic Senator from Minnesota Amy Klobuchar (L) and Ranking Member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Democratic Senator of Virginia Mark Warner (R) introduce the 'Honest Ads Act' at a news conference on Capitol Hill on October 19, 2017 in Washington.Michael Reynolds / EPA file

WASHINGTON — Many women, and some men, who work on Capitol Hill have a #metoo story.

And Congress is beginning to listen.

Both the House and the Senate are moving forward on making a least some incremental changes to how the institutions handle complaints of sexual harassment, something those pushing the moves say is long overdue in the close-knit working environment where power is coveted, used and, sometimes, abused.

Managers in all 100 senate offices received a directive Monday requiring for the first time that all staff members, and the senators themselves, must watch a training video on sexual harassment. That change came after the Senate passed new rules last week authored by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.

And on Tuesday a House committee will hold a hearing on its own sexual harassment training and policy to examine changes proposed by Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who has gone public with her own story of harassment from the days when she was a Congressional staffer in her 20s. She propelled the #metoocongress campaign and will testify at the hearing on Tuesday.

The chambers have separate rules governing them but together these efforts are considered a much-needed first step for an institution that for decades has operated in a club-like atmosphere with no central human resources department and a little-known, slow and convoluted complaint system for harassment.

“It’s possible they thought, 'well we’re different than the rest of the world,'” Klobuchar told NBC News of why Congress has no fixed sexual harassment policy.

Attention on Congress has grown in the wake of sexual harassment allegations and admissions that have rocked other industries and men in powerful positions, a flood that started with revelations about movie mogul Harvey Weinstein.

The Senate passed Klobuchar’s legislation last Thursday, just hours after the Washington Post reported that Alabama senate candidate Roy Moore made advances on young girls, including a 14 year old. Many Senate Republicans dropped their support of Moore on Monday, calling on him to leave the race. After at first denouncing Moore's actions "if true," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other members said on Tuesday that they believed the accusers.

Related: Woman Accuses Moore of Sexual Harassment When She Was 16

Sex scandals are not new to Capitol Hill and bombshell stories of sexual harassment and misbehavior have brought down members of Congress before. But the current reporting process for the rank-and-file staff is arduous.

Every Senate and House office acts like an individual small business and in the tight quarters of small groups, some of which have a staff of only six people, reporting harassment can be risky due to fears of retribution and career destruction.

The only viable outlet for a staffer in either chamber to lodge a complaint is through the Office of Compliance, which was created in 1995 after allegations of harassment and abuse from more than a dozen women, including many staff, led to the retirement former Oregon Sen. Bob Packwood.

But the Office of Compliance is cumbersome and slow for anyone seeking to file a grievance.

The person filing the complaint must first undergo 30 days of professional counseling and, after that, 30 days of mediation. Once those steps are complete, there’s another 30 day “cooling off period” after which the the victim can then file a claim in federal court, which can be resolved in about 700 days, or pursue an administrative hearing, which can take 180 days. The name of the accused can only be released if the outcome vindicates the victim. It's a process that has not changed in more than twenty years.

Some episodes were hardly secret. It was widely acknowledged around Congress that the late Sen. Strom Thurmond would inappropriately touch women throughout his career. And some scandals exploded into the news. Rep. Mark Foley resigned in 2006 after a sexting scandal with Congressional pages — high school interns who work on the House and Senate floor. And Rep. Tim Murphy resigned just last month after allegations of an extramarital affair and an abusive work environment.

But many more are never made public, or filed at all. Two former Hill aides recently circulated a letter to past Congressional staffers asking them to join in urging leadership to strengthen harassment policies. The letter cites a statement from the head of the Congressional Management Foundation, who has said there is “no doubt that sexual harassment is underreported in Congress.”

"We believe that Congress’s policies for preventing sexual harassment and adjudicating complaints of harassment are inadequate and need reform," the letter states.

In just four days, they’ve received signatures from more than 1,500 current and former staff.

Letter co-author Kristen Nicholson said harassment on the Hill is underreported because of the lack of an effective process for complaints but also because of the work culture.

“People pay an enormous amount of deference to members and so staffers aren’t accustomed to pushing back or requesting members’ behavior or action stop and it could be very hard to know when that line is crossed,” Nicholson said.

And the world of politics is a small one where professional repercussions are a real fear.

“One thing that I think is that a lot of victims of this — mostly women — have been holding this back,” Klobuchar said. “They didn’t feel like they could come forward because this would ruin their career.”

Advocates in the House and Senate say training requirements are just a first step. Legislation is expected to be introduced in both the House and the Senate that would reform the Office of Compliance, including getting rid of the mediation requirement.

Nicholson says the changes are a small but good starting point

"I think it’s at least an acknowledgement that these members say it’s a real issue and they’re willing to address it," Nicholson told NBC News. "It’s a real sign that people are ready to act and not just putting lip service to it."

NBC News is reporting on stories of harassment on Capitol Hill. To share a story, please mail or