Lawmakers seeking to address the issue of sexual harassment on Capitol Hill have hit a brick wall when trying to gather information about past complaints.
Rep. Susan Brooks, a Republican from Indiana, and a colleague sent a letter to the Congressional office tasked with handling workplace issues like harassment and discrimination seeking as much information as possible on sexual harassment claims.
Brooks chairs the House Committee on Ethics, which is tasked with investigating member misdeeds. She and the committee’s ranking member, Rep. Theodore Deutch, a Democrat from Florida, sent the letter on Dec. 1.
“We were asking for anything related to sexual harassment,” said Brooks. “The response received today indicated that due to the confidentiality requirements of the statute, they cannot provide us with that.”
All of the counseling and mediation that is conducted by the Office of Compliance is confidential under existing law, the head of that office wrote in a letter Brook’s office shared with TIME. The office can share information and records with the committee, but only if the complaint reaches the end stage of the complaint process and a decision has been rendered in the case. Because there were no such proceedings for any current members of Congress, the office had nothing to share.
“The way the law is written, the strict confidentiality not only binds the parties, but it specifically binds our office from discussing those claims,” said Susan Tsui Grundmann, the office’s executive director, while testifying before a House panel.
The revelation about how little information can be gleaned about sexual harassment complaints came during a Congressional hearing on reforms to the 1995 law that dictates how the body deals with such complaints. Under that law, the Congressional Accountability Act, the Office of Compliance was created. That office has come under fire amid discussions on sexual harassment in the Congress because of the onerous requirements and restrictions placed on victims when they seek out that process.
Right now, victims of harassment have to undergo 30 days of mandatory counseling, followed by 30 days of mandatory mediation if they file a complaint to the Office of Compliance. If the complaint is not settled in mediation, they have to adhere to a mandatory 30-day “cooling off period” before they can pursue the case further—either via an administrative hearing or in a federal district court. The whole time, they are under strict confidentiality rules and cannot share details of the process or their complaint.
“They created their own set of rules that put a number of onerous requirements on complainants and make it very difficult to navigate the process or come forward,” Washington-based employment attorney Debra Katz told TIME in November.
At Thursday’s hearing, the details of the law were held under a microscope as lawmakers from both sides of the aisle look for ways to overhaul the process. A bipartisan group of lawmakers has introduced the Me Too Congress Act, which would change some of the provisions that have drawn the most ire — including the lack of provided counsel for victims and the 30 day “cooling off period,” when victims can do nothing and cases are sometimes settled. That bill was not the focus of the hearing on Thursday, but some of the changes that are suggested within it were discussed.
Rep. Barbara Comstock, a Republican from Virginia, asked specifically if a victim advocate would help bolster the complaint process. “Wouldn’t that improve the whole dynamic of the experience with victims, putting them on a level playing field and helping them through this process?” she asked. Victoria Lipnic, the acting chair of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, called that a “valuable suggestion.”
Democrat Rep. Jackie Speier of California, who introduced the Me Too Congress Act, focused on victims, too. She asked Grundmann to address cases of retaliation. The Compliance Office chief revealed that under the current system, if a person is retaliated against—for instance, if they lose their job or are punished, they would have to start the 90-day process all over again in order to seek justice. “This is why we propose the possibility of investigations for general counsel and the possibility of amending the complaint so the charges all merge,” Grundmann said.
Several Congressmen, including Rep. Barry Loudermilk, a Republican from Georgia, focused on the issue of settlements. Rep. John Conyers, who retired amid allegations on Tuesday, had settled a $27,000 sexual harassment complaint in his office. Recent data from the Office of Compliance also revealed that an $84,000 sexual harassment settlement was paid in 2014 using taxpayer money because of a complaint against Texas Republican Rep. Blake Farenthold. On Monday, Farenthold said he would pay back the full amount of that settlement.
The most startling revelation from the hearing could be what ushers in change: the lack of information that exists on harassment complaints could be what drives Congress to fix the system. After the hearing, Brooks told a gaggle of reporters that while she was frustrated by what was revealed on Thursday, it will help guide members as they seek to work to improve the complaint process.
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