The allegations against Representative Matt Gaetz keep piling on, including accusations first reported by CNN that Gaetz showed fellow lawmakers images of nude women he slept with, even sharing a photo on the House floor. While the claims are certainly repugnant on their own, it’s also worth remembering that Congress is a workplace—and employers can get in hot water for allowing harassment in an office setting.
But what happens when the employee is hired by the voters of a Congressional district in Florida, while the workplace is a legislative chamber in Washington whose managers don’t answer to those constituents?
In fact, for a long time, Congress made itself exempt even as it passed laws meant to protect employees in offices outside the Capitol. That changed with the passage of the Congressional Accountability Act in 1995. The legislation was later refined in 2018 through the passage of the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 Reform Act, which made member-on-member sexual harassment a violation of the House code of conduct.
“It made sure that lawmakers would be held accountable for their actions in a way that I think was clear hadn’t been happening the way that it was needed before #MeToo went viral,” says Ally Coll, president of Purple Campaign, an organization combating workplace sexual harassment. “Members are now personally liable for harassment that they commit.”
According to Coll, Gaetz’ alleged conduct would likely be dealt with under the CAA Reform Act. The Florida congressman’s alleged actions could be considered both verbal and visual sexual harassment, creating a hostile workplace for anyone who experienced the interaction—elected member or ordinary staffer alike.
“Verbal sexual harassment can include gossiping about one’s sex life and bragging about sexual exploits,” says Coll. “There’s also visual harassment, which includes offensive or obscene photos—really any graphic material that denigrates or shows hostility or aversion toward a person that’s placed in the workplace.”
So, what recourse is available? The Office of Congressional Workplace Rights is the hub for reporting harassment on Capitol Hill, and congressional employees must file a claim within 180 days of the incident. Under the CAA Reform Act, those who report are also entitled to a free confidential adviser to help guide through the process. If a claimant receives a settlement or award for an allegation of harassment against a member of Congress, the lawmaker must reimburse the amount themselves.