Upstate New York Congressman Eric Massa — a conservative Democrat — will resign today from Congress because he is facing an ethics investigation into whether he sexually harassed a male staffer. Female Hill staffers are rolling their collective eyes.
Last night on the radio, Massa gave his account of the incident that spurred the investigation. He was attending a staffer's wedding and, after his wife left the reception due to illness, he had a dance with the bride and a bridesmaid, and then went and sat down at a table where his male staffers had gathered.
"One of them looked at me and - as they would do after, I don't know, 15 gin and tonics and goodness only knows how many bottles of champagne - a staff member made an intonation to me that maybe I should be chasing after the bridesmaid. His points were clear and his words were far more colorful than that.
"And I grabbed the staff member sitting next to me and I said, 'What I really ought to be doing is frakking you,' and then tossled the guy's hair and left, went to my room, because I knew the party was getting to a point where I shouldn't be there."
(For those not versed in sci fi, "frakking" is the television-friendly way that the Battlestar Gallactica writers coined for their characters to say "fucking." Massa, given his previous statements about his salty language, probably said "fucking.")
Congress, by the way, has historically been loathe to subject itself to the same workplace laws as other employers, or even the rest of the federal government, and staffers who face discrimination, or think they do, face an even more uphill legal battle to prove it. So the chances that a sexual harassment suit would proceed or even succeed, based on one out-of-office incident with a staffer who didn't himself complain, are slim at best. What's funny is that it took a man being subjected to comments by his boss about fucking to get the Ethics Committee's attention.
Goodness knows, plenty of women have labored in silence on Capitol Hill amid the handsy pols and the ogling classes without the Ethics Committee taking to much note. The sheer number of Congress members getting romantically involved with their former staffers (current Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Henry Hyde of the anti-abortion Hyde Amendment come to mind without even Googling, but there are others) should give everyone an indication of just how sexually charged the environment is on Capitol Hill — especially for women.
But, for women on the Hill, it goes far beyond just the occasional staffer-staffer or staffer-Member coupling. Rumors abound about whose Congressional office women should try not to end up alone in. One senior Congressman was known to be an ass-grabber (he lived up to his reputation with a friend of mine); Strom Thurmond was a rumored pincher. One former Congressman's male chief of staff made sure there wasn't a woman working in the office bigger than a B-cup because the Congressman seemingly couldn't help himself around the well-endowed women of D.C., and didn't know how to take no for an answer (as I once found out for myself). Another acquaintance accepted a ride home from a Congressman after a late night of legislating and found his hand creeping up her thigh like it was a date. I even had a Congresswoman at a reception ask me to tell the Congressman to whom I was speaking about my football-playing boyfriend, in a not-subtle indication that Mr. Nice Guy wasn't as nice (or as monogamous) as he seemed. None of us ever talked, except to one another (which is why I won't reveal names).
Sexual harassment — or at the very least a hostile environment — is practically de rigueur for women on Capitol Hill, even as there are some bosses (like Congressman Rush Holt, for whom I interned, and another who tried to get his colleague to fire a key staffer after the guy harassed my friend) who have a zero-tolerance policy for their offices and their staffers. As a woman, you often feel you can't afford to piss off a Congressman by reporting him — even if he's not your boss — lest he ruin your reputation or your career. As a veteran of some of that, it's a little ironic that one comment to a male staffer at an off-site party can trigger a resignation-worthy ethics investigation when, day after day, women grin and bear a hell of a lot more in the office. It almost makes Massa seem less crazy when he alleges he was pushed out to save health care reform from his no-vote.
Eric Massa Slams Democrat Leaders For Ethics Probe [Politico]
Massa Describes Incident With Aide [Rochester Democrat & Chronicle]
Massa Says Democrats Pushed Ethics Charges [Political Wire]
Related: Retiring Rep. Massa Says He Used "Salty Language" With Staff [Real Clear Politics]