A Senate side elevator in the Capitol is photographed on April 18, 2017. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Years ago, Shawna Meechan was working in her first job after college, as a policy aide to Washington state Congressman Adam Smith in Washington, D.C.
D.C. is designed to intimidate — from its neoclassical architecture to the stately elevators of the U.S Capitol. “Members Only” signs in elevators reinforce the idea of power and exclusivity.
In these elevators, Meechan would encounter a Democratic congressman who’d leer at her up and down.
The congressman would always comment about her height.
“‘You’re so statuesque,’ he’d say, ‘You’re lucky to be so tall and so beautiful,’” said Meechan, who left Smith’s office in 2010 to pursue a political science doctorate at the University of Oregon.
As more women come forward with public stories about sexual harassment by powerful men, more attention is being focused on Capitol Hill’s culture, which some women say leads to daily harassment. Most recently, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called on Rep. John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.) to resign amid multiple allegations that he harassed female aides. Also, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) returned to the Senate this week, where he faces an ethics investigation into sexual-harassment allegations.
While Meechan emphasized Smith was a supportive boss and she never had problems with anyone on his staff, she said like many women in the nation’s capital, she never felt comfortable telling her boss and felt like there wasn’t anything she could do.
“I knew I was uncomfortable and that I didn’t like being alone with that member, but this was also my first ‘real job’ and I really didn’t know that I could or should tell my boss that one of his colleagues was making inappropriate comments to me whenever I saw him,” Meechan said.
In D.C., everything is judged on its political impacts. She couldn’t tell the man to get lost, particularly because he was another Democrat whose support Smith might need.
“A lot of women face a constant internal debate: Does the level of harassment justify ruining a relationship? What is this going to do to my boss [politically]?” Meechan said.
It’s a common story, said Kristin Nicholson, director of Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute, and former chief-of-staff to Congressman Jim Langevin (D-R.I.).
Inspired by the women who went public with sexual-assault allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein, she helped organize a petition by 1,500 former congressional staffers, including Meechan and a handful of others who’ve worked in Washington state’s congressional delegation, urging Congress to take steps to reduce sexual harassment on the Hill.
“The tendency is to overlook a lot of stuff, especially the smaller stuff because you don’t want to be seen as too delicate for that world or not tough enough to be able to hack it on Capitol Hill,” Nicholson said.
So like many other women, Meechan just dealt with it.
“I felt like I was doing two jobs — doing the work I was supposed to do and worrying about the way I dressed or whether to ride in the [members-only] elevator.
If I knew a particular person was going to be in an elevator, I might go the long way. Or if I was too busy I’d take it, but know where to hold my binder,” Meechan said.
It’s unclear exactly how prevalent the harassment is. Forty percent of women in a July 2016 survey of congressional staff by CQ/Roll Call said sexual harassment is a problem on Capitol Hill. One in six said they had been a victim of sexual harassment.
Few of the 40 current congressional staffers in the state’s delegation responded to emails asking about the environment for women. But four women staffers from separate congressional offices said they haven’t encountered harassment or heard of other women in the delegation having had problems.
One said she didn’t recognize the atmosphere being portrayed in the media, but also said she didn’t doubt that women, especially from other delegations, were having problems.
The Northwest has its history of sexual-harassment scandals. Congressman Smith recalled being in the State Senate in 1995 when then Washington Gov. Mike Lowry decided not to run for a second term after one of his press aides accused him of repeatedly fondling her.
That same year, Oregon Republican Sen. Bob Packwood was forced to resign after the Senate ethics committee voted to expel him because of charges by former staffers that he groped and forcibly kissed them.
And in 1992, Washington Democratic Sen. Brock Adams abandoned his campaign for a second term after eight unidentified women told The Seattle Times he’d sexually assaulted them.
However, today’s state delegation has been ahead of others in trying to prevent sexual harassment, including those of Smith, Denny Heck, Dave Reichert, Suzan DelBene and Pramila Jayapal who required staff to take anti-sexual harassment training before it was required by the House this week. Rep. Rick Larsen and his senior staff also recently took the training.
Sen. Patty Murray’s office policies also specifically prohibits sexual harassment, something all of her staff is reminded of each year, her office said.
Still, other stories have emerged involving women with ties to the delegation.
Robyn Hiestand, for instance, was a prominent staffer, who’d served as a senior analyst on the powerful Senate Budget Committee when it was chaired by Murray, between 2012 and 2014.
Two years ago, after Murray was no longer the chairwoman and Hiestand had left Congress to be a higher-education advocate, she was invited to a party at the Harry S. Truman Bowling Alley on the White House campus.
Hiestand remembered the door to the bowling alley closing behind her as she stepped into a corridor that lead to the bathroom. A male Senate staffer, who did not work under Murray, followed her into the corridor.
“He pinned my arms around me and started tickling me, and pulled up my shirt over my bra,” said Hiestand, who did not want to name the staffer because he was fired for the incident.
The experience, in part, drove her from Washington, D.C. to Minnesota, where she now works as an education consultant.
Hiestand is still affected by what happened. She’s applied for jobs to return to Washington, D.C. as a policy expert. “But I’d only work for someone I know and trust,” she said.
Nicholson said it’s a stretch to think a culture of powerful men, who are often catered to by young female staffers at fundraisers and after-hours events, will change overnight. Instead, the emphasis is on reforming a bureaucratic process that can deter women from ever reporting incidents.
A bill proposed by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) would, among other things, remove the requirement for a months-long mediation period for sexual-harassment complaints. Her bill would also require harassers to repay the Treasury for settlements in cases. Currently, taxpayers end up footing the bill when congressional offices settle employment claims. On Friday, it was revealed Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) used taxpayer funds to settle a $84,000 suit in 2014.
Several Washington state Democrats, including DelBene, Smith, Heck and Jayapal, said they support Speier’s bill, and Smith signed on as a co-sponsor Friday.
DelBene said she’s also working on a bill that would no longer allow companies to deduct settlements they pay in sexual-harassment cases from taxes.
Heck said he’s hopeful the “cultural sea of change” that has more women coming forward with allegations will bring systemic changes, and Smith agreed.
“It’s going to make a huge difference and it’s going to stop people from thinking they can get away with it,” Smith said.
Meechan said she probably would go to Smith now, but it has less to do with the fact that more women are speaking out.
“I was so young and so unsure of my place in the Capitol that I just didn’t say anything,” she said. “The 33-year-old me would most definitely say something both to the offending member of Congress and to my own boss, but I really don’t know if the 23-year-old me would, even in this moment, which is why we need better training and better resources for staffers.”
This story has been updated with new information.