Politics, government and public life for Southern California

6 reasons why sexual harassment complaints aren't more common in DC

Bob Filner

Charles Dharapak

San Diego Mayor Bob Filner served in Congress for almost two decades, which included a stint as Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs.

San Diego Mayor Bob Filner announced Friday that he's checking himself in for two weeks of therapy in August — but not resigning. This after four additional women — including a retired Navy rear admiral and a dean at San Diego State University — accused him of sexual harassment.

All seven of the women who have accused Filner of inappropriate behavior are in California. So far, no accusations have come from Washington, D.C., where Filner served as a Congressman for almost two decades.

Could his behavior have only begun when he became San Diego's mayor last year?  Or is there a reason why no complaints against Filner have surfaced in D.C.? Well, in fact, there are six possible reasons why such claims aren't generally more prevalent:

Reason 1: Capitol Hill is not like anywhere else.

Just ask former Congressional staffer Alexis Ronickher. She describes the Hill as having "a more cavalier office culture." In other words, things that corporate America would not let happen are tolerated in D.C. She says part of that stems from people fresh off election duty. "[The] campaign trail is late nights, intense hours, little sleep — behavior gets very familiar, shall we say."

Ronickher says she never saw or experienced sexual harassment in the three years she worked on the Hill. But as an employment lawyer with the private firm Katz, Marshall & Banks, she now represents those who have.

Ronickher notes that Congress has only been subject to sexual harassment laws since 1995. And the statue of limitations for making a complaint is short – just 180 days.

Reason 2: Congress makes it complicated to sue for sexual harassment. 

Ronickher says there's a long and complicated set of procedures to follow before you can take a case to court. You start with the Congressional Office of Compliance, which fields complaints from Capitol Hill staffers on a wide range of issues. In 2011, for example, there were more than two dozen disputes between Congressional staffers and their bosses, but the Compliance office doesn't identify how many of them are sexual harassment, or how many involved an elected official.

But it is clear that working on Capitol Hill isn't like working in most places.

Reason 3: The code of silence and code of loyalty.

Melanie Sloan is head of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. She says it's considered disloyal to say anything against a member of Congress, "and no other office is likely to want to hire you once it gets out that you've said bad things about your boss."

If you complain, Sloan says, you'll probably get tagged as a troublemaker, and find it hard to get another job. Instead, you can just quietly leave, get another position on Capitol Hill and tell your new boss that your former place of employment was a "difficult office to work in. "And most of the time, other members of Congress may have a pretty good inkling of why you left your previous job.

Reason 4: Personal often takes a backseat to the larger political goal.

Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute says speaking out in D.C. doesn't just ruin your own career. "You may well do something that would damage or destroy the political career of somebody you've been working for and no doubt, lots of people around you. Friends and co-workers ask, Why did you do something like that?

Alexis Ronickher says people take jobs with particular lawmakers because they care about the issues their boss cares about, which are usually part of a bigger partisan picture: "You’re going to undermine not just your boss, but the national party?"

Reason 5: It's still a boy's town.

Norm Ornstein says things have improved somewhat since the days when bad behavior was shrugged off — like that of a certain Senator from South Carolina who was known for pinching Capitol Hill women in the tush. "There was a joke," recalls Ornstein, "that the last place any woman wanted to be was alone in an elevator with Strom Thurmond." Thurmond served in Congress for nearly half a century.

In 1988, allegations of sexual harassment surfaced regarding then-Congressman Jim Bates of San Diego. One year later, the House Ethics Committee investigated and sent a letter of reproval, telling him to apologize to the women he'd offended. Bates eventually was defeated by a former staffer — Bob Filner.

And just this spring, allegations of sexual harassment were raised about Florida Democrat Alcee Hastings. According to the Wall Street Journal, the other ethics committee, the Office of Congressional Ethics, is investigating those claims.

Reason 6: Do you really want to be fodder for Jay Leno's monologue?

Norm Ornstein says speaking out also calls attention to the victim, putting her — or his — behavior under a microscope. Attorney Alexis Ronickher cites one case involving male staffers being harassed by a Congressman that ended up on late night TV. "Are you going to come forward when as a staffer you see that you become a parody on "Saturday Night Live?'" 

Ronickher says for many young staffers, Hill jobs are stepping stones to future careers as lobbyists. That means a lot of folks grin-and-bear-it and figure they'll later reap the profits of not having rocked the boat.

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