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La. scandal a reminder of varying sexual harassment policies on Capitol Hill

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By The Washington Post
Sunday, April 13, 2014, 9:03 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Rep. Vance McAllister, R-La., disappeared from Washington once news broke that he had been caught on video kissing a staff member. He waited four days after the video surfaced to call House Speaker John Boehner, who assessed McAllister's situation this way: “He's got decisions that he has to make.”

Neither McAllister nor the female aide — who has since left his office — has spoken publicly about the specifics of the incident or about their relationship, and there have been no suggestions of harassment. But the case has served as a reminder that even though Congress writes laws that apply nationwide, they aren't always enforced the same way on Capitol Hill.

Congress and its 30,000 or so employees operate under rules different from those in the rest of the federal government when it comes to sexual harassment and other employment laws. Unlike in federal agencies and most of the private sector, there is no blanket policy requiring sexual harassment training for new House and Senate employees. There are no placards posted in common areas reminding workers of the rules. Some staff members fear the repercussions of filing formal complaints. And few House and Senate aides last week said they could recall sexual harassment policies being discussed in the office.

Although a Senate employment office offers regular training courses for new employees, there is no such schedule in the House. Many House offices distribute employee handbooks written by the committee overseeing House operations, but myriad policies apply in Senate offices.

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., last week bemoaned the patchwork policies and said the McAllister incident was her tipping point. After years of similar cases involving former congressmen Mark Foley, R-Fla., Mark Souder, R-Ind., and Eric Massa, D-N.Y. — who all left office amid accusations of inappropriate behavior with staffers or congressional pages — Speier introduced a measure that would require lawmakers and their staff members to attend sexual harassment training once a year.

It's unclear what kind of support Speier's proposal might attract.

In the meantime, staff members in her Washington and California offices are scheduled to take a “sensitivity course” on April 28.

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