Last year, shortly after MeToo took off in Hollywood, attention quickly turned toward Capitol Hill’s own issues, including allegations against Roy Moore and Al Franken. Rep. Jackie Speier revealed that she had experienced unwanted sexual advances as a young congressional staffer and launched the #MeTooCongress hashtag. Then, a group of former Hill aides penned a letter calling for reform of “inadequate” sexual harassment policies in Congress.
Reporters dug in, revealing the arduous, bureaucratic process for reporting sexual harassment on the Hill, and unearthing $199,000 in tax-payer-funded settlements for those claims. Kasie Hunt, a correspondent at NBC News, was one of those reporters—and Tuesday night, a year after she launched an investigation into the issue, she and her team received an award from the Radio Television Correspondents Association for their reporting on the issue.
Jezebel spoke with Hunt by phone about the progress that has been made in the last year—and the improvements that remain to be seen.
JEZEBEL: A year ago you reported on the difficult, drawn-out process for reporting sexual harassment allegations on Capitol Hill. Can you walk me through what that process was, exactly?
Kasie Hunt: The broad strokes are that it was very complicated to report a complaint. You had six months to decide whether or not you wanted to report it. If you waited six months and you didn’t say anything, after that you would have no recourse. If you wanted to report it, you had to go to an obscure office called the Office of Compliance. There was a poll that Roll Call did of Hill staffers and most of them had no idea that this office was even there. At the time, the office was not available to help interns or anyone who was not an official Capitol employee.
Once you reported it, you had to go through a mandatory counseling period where they would make you assure them that, yes, you really did want to go forward with it. You had to go to mediation and, very often, if you did end up getting a settlement, you were forced to sign a nondisclosure agreement.
You had your own lawyer in the process, but the lawyers for whoever it was that you were accusing, be it a member of Congress or another member of the staff, those lawyers were paid for with taxpayer money. As were—or are, I should say—the settlements that resulted from these complaints. If you are a member of Congress who has had a staffer accuse you of harassment or something else nefarious, and they agree that there was something wrong and they were willing to settle with you, that money was not coming from them, it was coming from the taxpayers.
How has that reporting process changed since then?
It’s still a work in progress. There have been some changes to the system that the House of Representatives was able to do by fiat, essentially. They changed some of the House rules—for example, now these protections do apply to interns. The overarching process for investigating and reviewing complaints—in theory, it should be in the final stages, but it’s not actually yet.
The House first passed the bill and it was bipartisan, and it was passed overwhelmingly. It held members accountable for paying their own settlements in the event of harassment. It also smoothed the process and makes it easier for people to bring these complaints. I can’t really go into the specifics of how it will work, because what then happened was the Senate had its own version of the bill. The bill in the Senate took a lot more time and languished until the spring. There was a lot of pressure and a lot of questions, and one of the main sticking points was whether or not lawmakers were going to be held personally financially accountable in the event that a complaint went to a settlement.
The two bills have now passed both chambers. There have been these ongoing negotiations between the House and the Senate about how to reconcile some of the differences so that they can actually get it done. The big sticking point has been that the Senate bill would require lawmakers to pay out of their pocket in the event of sexual harassment settlement, however it wouldn’t require them to pay out of their own pocket in a couple of different instances—namely workplace discrimination and sex discrimination. So, there’s some concern among advocates that, essentially, a lawmaker could agree to settle and say that it was sex discrimination and then get their settlement paid for.
The issue of those taxpayer-funded settlements was one of the biggest sources of outrage when you started reporting on this last fall.
I don’t think anybody really realized that if they sent their congressman to Washington and they behaved badly with their staffers that they would be on the hook for paying for that. I think people were pretty outraged.
Did the Kavanaugh hearings have any impact on the amount of heat that’s around these issues, or the likelihood for further change?
I think that the Kavanaugh hearings, like we saw play out in the election, made people really retreat into their partisan corners on this. It made the place very acrimonious. From that perspective, it made getting anything done more difficult. I do think that the emphasis on changing the culture is what started all of this and, obviously, it swept from Hollywood with the Weinstein story, to Congress. There still are a lot of people pushing to get this done in Congress.
Did you encounter any pushback for reporting on these issues?
It’s a very challenging topic to report on. Everyone on our Capitol Hill team has personal relationships and sources developed over many years, and the people we were talking to had very sensitive stories to tell. Especially in politics, it was very difficult to get anyone who said they were harassed to come forward on the record. People were just still very, very afraid for what it would mean for their careers.
When people work in politics they’re signing up to be part of a bigger cause and the politician that they’re working to get elected ultimately becomes the reason you show up and go to work every day. So, if you’re the person who is suddenly saying that that person is not necessarily fit for office, you’re facing repercussions not only from them, but also your colleagues who are in the same boat. You’re potentially not just risking your job, but also their job if the politician resigns from office, for example. So, obviously, the standards for reporting a story like this are incredibly high.
What other necessary changes are left?
The big question is just going to be, if they do put this into place, whether or not it works, and whether or not Hill staffers who are effected by this feel as though the new system that is created is fair to them and one that they can navigate. We won’t have the chance to know that until they actually put it in place and people see if the new rules are actually effective and, frankly, put the rights of the victims higher up on the totem pole than they were before.