For some on Capitol Hill, smiling faces hide pain

ROGER SIMON

October 20, 1993|By ROGER SIMON

WASHINGTON -- Should you stroll through the corridors of power and wander into the offices that house our senators and representatives, you would be greeted the same way by the receptionists in each one: With a smile.

A pleasant disposition is considered a prerequisite for dealing with the public on Capitol Hill.

But behind the smiles there is pain.

According to a survey conducted by the Washington Post in January, more than one out of every three women working on Capitol Hill say they have been sexually harassed on the job. And one third of these women say the harasser has been a senator or congressman.

"And yet," Laura Loessner, co-chair of the Capitol Hill Women's Political Caucus, said yesterday, "no sexual harassment grievances have been filed with the Fair Employment Practices offices since they were established in 1988."

So lots of women feel harassed, but they are not bringing complaints.

"Even after Anita Hill galvanized the nation on this subject," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said at a news conference yesterday, "the problem continues."

With good reason: Anita Hill, it should be remembered, lost and her alleged harasser, Clarence Thomas, got to the Supreme Court.

Nor did Hill's treatment by the Senate Judiciary Committee give much encouragement to women to publicly accuse powerful men.

(Not everyone who works on Capitol Hill is a woman. A study by the Congressional Management Foundation found that women are clustered in the low-level jobs -- nine out of every 10 receptionists are women -- while men are clustered in the high-level jobs -- two out of every three administrative assistants or chiefs of staff are men.)

One problem is that women are afraid to report sexual harassment. Another is determining just what sexual harassment So the Capitol Hill Women's Political Caucus provides an extensive set of examples, including:

* "Graphic or degrading comments about an employee's appearance, dress or anatomy";

* "Ill-received dirty jokes and offensive gestures";

* "The abuse of familiarities or diminutives such has 'honey,' 'sweetheart,' 'darling,' 'dear,' or 'baby,'; this can include referring to adult women as 'girls.' "

In the last Congress, 318 members out of 535 signed the caucus' pledge against sexual harassment and thereby made the caucus' Honor Roll.

This year, in the wake of highly publicized sexual harassment allegations against Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore., the number rose to 343.

"I certainly would prefer to have 100 percent compliance," Rep. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said yesterday, "and it leads me to ask why colleagues would not sign guidelines against sex harassment in their own office."

A good question. With the exception of Helen Delich Bentley, R-2nd, all members of the Maryland delegation made the Honor Roll this year.

"This is the first time I have heard anything about this," Pat Wait, Bentley's administrative assistant and spokesperson said when I called her yesterday. "I have never received a phone call from this group and if they sent a letter, we get 100 letters a day over here. But I can tell you: We do not approve of sexual harassment in this office."

It is so easy to make the Honor Roll -- all you have to do is sign -- that if all those who did sign actually worked against sexual harassment, the women on Capitol Hill would not feel as harassed as they do.

Which led to the following exchange between reporters and Menda Fife, co-chair of the caucus:

"Bob Packwood was on your Honor Roll last year," a reporter said. "What does that say about the effectiveness of your list?"

"I don't think it makes any difference," Fife replied.

"If Packwood had signed the pledge this year, would you have put him on your Honor Roll?" the reporter asked.

"Of course," Fife said. "We don't discriminate on the basis of rumors."

"So what should we make of those members of Congress who are absent from your list?" a reporter asked.

"They are extremely busy people," Fife said. "We prefer to think ++ that if members are not on the Honor Roll it is through an oversight."

Or because they are too busy chasing their receptionists.

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