WASHINGTON — Capitol Hill has long been an insular boys’ club known for tales of unwanted sexual approaches, wandering hands at crowded receptions and young women cornered in elevators. But the days when such actions are dismissed out of hand and escape scrutiny may be coming to an end.
The quick bipartisan call for an ethics inquiry into accusations of groping by Senator Al Franken, Democrat of Minnesota, made clear that a rapidly shifting national mood on the subject had reached the Capitol, raising the prospect that lawmakers and aides will be increasingly unwilling to overlook sexual misconduct, harassment and crude behavior that they might have let pass before.
“We are at a watershed moment,” Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader, declared Thursday, calling on Congress to overhaul its fairly toothless internal process for dealing with sexual harassment.
It was evident the national outpouring of disturbing accounts of sexual harassment and assault and the furor surrounding Roy S. Moore, the Republican Senate candidate in Alabama, was prompting an examination of the culture in Congress. Though Congress has often shown a reluctance to police itself too strenuously, some lawmakers were demanding a legislative response as well as a recognition that attitudes and activities accepted in the past should be exposed and punished.
“I think we need to, as a country, have a much fuller conversation about this kind of behavior — how wrong it is, how toxic it is, how harmful it is, and how we need to support survivors and make sure that there is a place for them to not only tell their story, but to get some measure of justice, some measure of transparency and accountability,” said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York. She spoke in an interview for the New York Times podcast “The New Washington.
To be sure, Congress has seen many highly publicized cases of unacceptable sexual behavior and misconduct, including accusations of harassment and assault by Senator Bob Packwood, an influential Republican from Oregon in the 1990s, and accounts of Representative Mark Foley of Florida making overtures to House pages. That scandal led to Mr. Foley’s ouster, helped Republicans lose the House in 2006 and ended the House page program. But those events and a few others became so big that they dominated headlines.
Many, many other occurrences of sexual harassment by lawmakers and staff members over the years went unreported because of the understandable reluctance of the victims to take on powerful figures. Each House and Senate office is like an independent business, with lawmakers and their senior aides controlling budgets, plum assignments and job mobility with little to no oversight. It has been a significant risk for aides to challenge the system and put their political hopes on the line.
At the same time, lawmakers and others have been resistant to naming names. In some cases, they have admired a person or have recognized the need to work with them in the future. Going public can also damage one’s own political party by setting off scrutiny. Representative Jackie Speier, Democrat of California, said this week that she was aware of two members of Congress — one from each party — known to have engaged in sexual harassment, but she did not name them.
That climate could be changing.
“I think that the, sort of, flood gates have been opened in terms of the people who are willing to talk about their experiences,” said Representative Linda Sánchez of California, a member of the Democratic leadership. “And we can learn from that to figure out — how do we tighten up the procedures to make it a fairer process for complainants?”
“I think many don’t come forward because of the fear of reprisal, the fear of losing their job and the economic impact of that, the fear of being blacklisted throughout their career,” Ms. Sánchez said. “And I think now is finally that turning point in our country where people are starting to take complaints seriously, and people are starting to agitate for a fairer process for those who have been the victims of sexual assault or sexual harassment.”
With intense attention focused on Mr. Moore — who is accused of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl in 1979 while he was in his 30s — and now Mr. Franken, the clear expectation on Capitol Hill was that more names and past episodes could surface.
A striking element of the case of Mr. Franken, who was accused of forcing a kiss on a fellow member of a troupe performing for American forces overseas in 2006 and later groping her as she slept, was the speed at which members of both parties backed an ethics inquiry into the events, which happened before he was elected to the Senate.
“I strongly condemn this behavior, and the Senate Ethics Committee must open an investigation,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar, Mr. Franken’s Democratic colleague from Minnesota. She called the episode “another example of why we need to change work environments and reporting practices across the nation, including in Congress.”
In the House, Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin has called for mandatory harassment training for all lawmakers and staff members, and the Senate passed a resolution directing that the Senate do the same. But others want Congress to go much further and institute a system that would provide more job protection and support for victims.
Like everything in Congress, changing a deeply ingrained culture where the powerful sometimes believed sexual advantage came with the oath of office is going to take time and negotiation. But the bipartisan response to the Moore and Franken cases — and the prospect of others to come — suggest that the rules of the boys’ club may be in for a rewrite.