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Rep. Speier: Sexual harassment continues on Capitol Hill because people get away with it

House members confronted the seriousness of sexual harassment on Capitol Hill at a hearing on Tuesday, as two congresswomen shared their perspectives on the problem's pervasiveness. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., has spoken out about being assaulted as a young congressional aide by a senior staff member at the Capitol, and now she’s speaking out for others. Speier joins Judy Woodruff.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    There was a third congressional hearing of note today. House members confronted the seriousness of the sexual harassment within Capitol Hill itself, this on the same day that Speaker Paul Ryan put out word that the House of Representatives will require anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training for all members and staff.

    During this morning's hearing, two congresswomen, Virginia Republican Barbara Comstock and California Democrat Jackie Speier, shared their perspectives on just how pervasive the issue is. They also suggested, without naming names, that a few current members of Congress are part of the problem.

  • Rep. Barbara Comstock:

    And I wanted to close with a statement, something that I just had somebody tell me recently. This is about a member who is here now. I don't know who it is, but somebody who I trust told me the situation.

    This member asked a staffer to bring them over some materials to their residence. And the young staffer — it's a young woman — went there, and was greeted with a member in a towel, who was a male, who then invited her in. At that point, he decided to expose himself.

    She left, and then she quit her job. She left. She found another job.

    But that kind of situation, what do — what are we doing here for women right now who are dealing with somebody like that?

  • Rep. Jackie Speier:

    Since I shared my own story on #MeTooCongress, I have had numerous meetings and phone calls with staff members, both present and former, women and men, who have been subjected to this inexcusable and oftentimes illegal behavior.

    In fact, there are two members of Congress, Republican and Democrat, right now who serve who have been subject to review, or not have been subject to review, but have engaged in sexual harassment.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And with us now is Representative Jackie Speier of California.

    Congresswoman Speier, thank you for being here.

    You come to this topic with your own background. You have talked about it recently, and that had to do with your being assaulted as a young congressional aide by a senior staff member at the Capitol.

  • Rep. Jackie Speier:

    That's right, Judy.

    When I was a young aide in 1973, the chief of staff in the office I worked, when we were in a room alone, came up to me, put his hands on my face, kissed me, and stuck his tongue in my mouth. And I recoiled and was panicked, and I just made a point of never being alone with him ever again.

    So, I told my story mostly to encourage women on the Hill to come forward and know that they have an ear that will listen to them. I have been working on this issue for many years. I attempted an amendment for mandatory sexual harassment training back in 2014, and it never even got a hearing.

    We came a long way today by having a hearing. And now we have the speaker, who is mandating sexual harassment prevention training for all members and staff. But we have to go on beyond that, because the Office of Compliance is fraught with problems for victims, and has been created really to protect the harasser, and not to provide any protection whatsoever for the victim.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How pervasive do you think sexual harassment and worse is today on the Hill?

  • Rep. Jackie Speier:

    Well, you know, it's hard to measure, because victims are afraid to come forward.

    I mean, most victims, three-quarters of those who are sexually harassed never come forward because they're in job environments where they need the job. They're afraid that, if they come forward, they will lose their job or they will be a pariah.

    And so the result is, is that we really don't know. We do know that, over the last 10 or 15 years, there have been $15 million that we as taxpayer have paid out for conduct by either staff or members who sexually harassed other staff in the building.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, you have — as you just said, the process that it takes to process a complaint right now in the Congress is unusually onerous. What is it going to take to change that?

  • Rep. Jackie Speier:

    Well, I'm introducing a bill tomorrow that hopefully will have all of the elements to fix that.

    No longer will a victim be required to sign a nondisclosure agreement. They will not be forced into mediation. They are going to be represented by their own counsel. Those who are interns and fellows who have nowhere to go now will be able to access this process as well.

    So, we're going to change it, so that it is more victim-centric.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Do you have sponsors, co-sponsors from both parties?

  • Rep. Jackie Speier:

    I do have co-authors from both parties.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what do you think the prospects are?

  • Rep. Jackie Speier:

    Well, doing mandatory sexual harassment prevention training does nothing if we don't have a system that's going to protect the victim.

    So, it would be a Pyrrhic victory, frankly, if we all we do is mandatory training.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I noticed that you said today, Congresswoman Speier, that it's women and men who have this to fear, that it's not just women, but men who experience sexual — people coming on to them in unwelcome ways, and worse, as well.

  • Rep. Jackie Speier:

    That's right.

    And, sometimes, you know, men are subject to hostile work environments. I had one young man who was disabled who spoke to me last week and was working in a very hostile work environment, and he attributed to his disability.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Do you think — let me put it this way. Why do you think this persists in this environment? Members of Congress are well-educated. They come to this city to do the business for the American people. Why is this still happening?

  • Rep. Jackie Speier:

    You know, I think it's because they become intoxicated with power that it continues to happen.

    It also continues to happen because they have been able to get away with it. They have never been named. They're not outed. They don't have to pay for the settlements. And so there really is no downside to conducting themselves in a manner that allows them to assert their power.

    You know, sometimes, this place has been called Hollywood for ugly people.


  • Rep. Jackie Speier:

    And I think, sometimes, it's the sense that somehow persons who have never been seen as attractive all of a sudden are because they have power, and they find ways to abuse it.

    But it's a cultural problem. It's a cultural problem throughout this country, and one that has plagued many workplaces and many professions, and one that I think we're finally at a tipping point that we're going to be able to fix, and that's good news for women and men in this country.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I noticed that the House majority leader, Nancy Pelosi, at one point recently was quoted as saying she had never experienced this herself, wasn't aware of it.

    Is it possible that some people just don't come across this?

  • Rep. Jackie Speier:

    I think it's possible that people have not been subject to sexual harassment.

    But I think the likelihood of being subject to sexual harassment is greater here than in many other locations, because it is a predominantly male environment. And we have had a system that has protected harassers.

    So they had the freedom to operate in that manner. I can't tell you the number of staffers who have come up to me in the last several weeks and said, We're so grateful you're doing something about this.

    We have 1,500 former staffers on Capitol Hill who signed a letter to the membership of the House Admin Committee seeking to have this issue finally dealt with. And they have served from the '70s through the 2000s.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Remarkable. Remarkable. So many people.

    Representative Jackie Speier, thank you very much.

  • Rep. Jackie Speier:

    Thank you.

  • Editor’s note:

    An earlier version of the transcript regarding the amount that taxpayers pay for sexual harassment for Congressional government employees was incorrectly transcribed.

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