Speier calls 2 in Congress harassers
WASHINGTON — Rep. Jackie Speier, the Peninsula Democrat who last month became the first member of Congress to go public with her own experience of sexual assault on Capitol Hill, testified Tuesday that she knows of two sitting members of Congress who have sexually harassed staffers.
Speaking to the House Administration Committee at a hearing on Congress’ sexual harassment policies, Speier said she could not name the members, one of them a Democrat and the other a Republican, because the cases are subject to nondisclosure agreements. But she said one incident involved genital expo-
sure and the other involved grabbing a victim on the House floor.
She told the committee that Congress needs to overhaul its system for treating sexual harassment claims and impose mandatory training for all House members and staff. A few hours later, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., adopted part of her proposal, unilaterally mandating sexual harassment training “going forward” for all House members and staff.
Last month, Speier, D-Hillsborough, used a YouTube video to disclose that she had been a victim of sexual assault as a young congressional aide in the 1970s and started a campaign, #MeTooCongress, to encourage other victims on Capitol Hill to go public with their stories of sexual assault or harassment.
Since then, she said she’s heard from many victims on the Hill who are afraid that speaking out will ruin their careers. One of them, she said, told her last week, “I’m a single mother. I can’t afford to lose my job.”
Speier said victims fear “being blackballed in this institution and being subject to reprisals.”
“All they ask in return as staff members is to be able to work in a hostile-free environment,” Speier testified. “They want the system fixed, and the perpetrators held accountable.”
Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va., who sits on the committee, said she was also told by a trusted source that a sitting member of Congress, a male whose name she did not know, had directed a young woman on his staff to deliver something to his home. He greeted her there wearing only a towel, invited her in and exposed himself, Comstock said.
“She left and then quit her job,” she said.
When Speier made a similar effort three years ago to institute sexual harassment training for Congress, House leaders quashed it. Now she has bipartisan support from Democrats and Republicans, including Republican Gregg Harper of Mississippi, chairman of the Administration Committee, which oversees House operations and management.
Harper said he wants to strengthen Speier’s legislation to ensure that individual members, not taxpayers, pay settlements arising from harassment charges against members.
The Senate took a major step last week in addressing the issue, unanimously approving legislation to require sexual harassment training for its members and staff.
The question now is whether Congress as a whole will overhaul a process for reporting sexual harassment claims — created by the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act — that provides taxpayer-funded legal counsel to the alleged perpetrator, requires victims to enter mediation with the person they’re accusing, forces them to wait three months before lodging a formal complaint, and requires nondisclosure agreements to ensure that the charge never becomes public.
Even those procedures are not available to interns or fellows working on the Hill, often as teenagers or young adults working nonpaying positions.
The system also requires taxpayers to pay any settlements. A Washington Post investigation found that between 1997 and 2014, the U.S. Treasury paid $15.2 million in 235 awards and settlements for workplace violations on the Hill. Speier’s bill would disclose the settlements and name the congressional office involved.
No date has been set for consideration of Speier’s bill or others that have been proposed to overhaul the reporting system. Ryan has instead directed the Administration Committee and the Rules and Ethics Committee to review how the House handles sexual harassment claims.
After Tuesday’s hearing, Harper told reporters that amending the accountability act “is going to take a little bit of time,” but said the rash of allegations inside Congress has made its elected members and staff “much more cognizant of what is acceptable and unacceptable.”
“When you're in a position of power, you cannot under any circumstance take advantage of someone on your staff,” Harper said.
On Monday, more than 1,500 former congressional staffers signed a letter urging both training and reform of the Congressional Accountability Act. The letter cited a survey last year that found 40 percent of the women who responded thought sexual harassment was a problem on Capitol Hill, and that 1 in 6 reported being a victim of sexual harassment.
Tuesday’s hearing came amid a firestorm over allegations that Roy Moore, a Republican candidate for Senate from Alabama, engaged in sexual misconduct, including possible assault, with five teenagers when he was an assistant district attorney in his 30s.
Since Speier went public with her story, several media outlets have conducted extensive interviews with congressional staff, uncovering what some described as a “Wild West” culture of sexual predation. Rep. Bradley Byrne, an Alabama Republican who had a long career in corporate human resources and testified with Speier, said Congress currently has none of the training, investigative or disciplinary procedures now commonplace in the corporate world.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, speaks at a hearing in Congress on sexual harassment. She wants current rules changed so harassers are held more responsible.