Politics

Speier’s Bill Could Change How Congress Deals With Harassment

Legislation would speed up process for filing an official complaint, require training

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said “Congress has been a breeding ground for a hostile work environment for far too long.” (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Rep. Jackie Speier, who revealed Friday she had been sexually assaulted when she was a Capitol Hill staffer, will introduce legislation next week that could transform how the Congressional Office of Compliance treats cases of sexual misconduct, sources told Roll Call Friday.

The bill would speed up the process for lodging an official complaint with the Congressional Office of Compliance (OOC) and require all lawmakers and staffers to complete an annual sexual misconduct training course, the sources said.

Lawmakers and staff would also be required every two years to fill out a mandatory survey regarding their experience with sexually inappropriate behavior.

With her revelation Friday, Speier joined four Democratic senators — Claire McCaskillElizabeth Warren, Heidi Heitkamp and Mazie Hirono — who have recently shared stories of being sexually harassed.

“The thinking is it’s good for these women lawmakers to share their stories,” Speier spokeswoman Tracy Manzer said. “But they’re now in positions of power, and staff still suffers. These lawmakers have the opportunity to do something about it now."

Surveys show sexual harassment is prevalent on Capitol Hill, and many who work there think the resources to prevent and report such cases are woefully inadequate, Roll Call reported in January.

Four in 10 of the women who responded to a CQ Roll Call survey of congressional staff last summer said they believed sexual harassment is a problem on the Hill, while one in six said they personally had been victimized.<

Under current procedures, congressional employees who want to file a complaint have to wait nearly three months before they can officially do so.

[How Congress Deals With Sexual Harassment in the Workplace]

The OOC gives congressional employees up to 180 days after an alleged incident of harassment to request mandatory legal counseling. If they opt to do so, that legal counseling lasts for 30 days. If the victim wants to move forward from there, he or she must next participate in 30 days of mediation, where the employee and the office can confidentially reach a voluntary settlement.

After that two-month process, the employee can request an administrative proceeding before a hearing officer or file a case in federal district court — but only after a 30-day “cooling-off” period after mediation.

To expedite the process for actually lodging an official complaint, Speier’s legislation would make the legal counseling and mediation steps optional, one of the aforementioned sources said. That would dramatically reduce the amount of time it takes for employees to file their complaint.

“It’s an extremely difficult situation for staffers because you risk your career being killed when you air a complaint like this,” Manzer said, noting that the drawn-out OOC process deters victims from even initiating it. “Even among former staffers who maybe work as lobbyists or consultants, the understanding is [filing a complaint] is the end of your career in politics.”

Another measure Speier is hoping to include would empower the OOC to investigate cases on its own. The OOC is not currently authorized to subpoena emails and documents to corroborate a complainant’s story.

“Right now they can only mediate and look at voluntarily submitted evidence,” Speier’s office said. “We want to give the process more teeth.”

Speier described her own experience in a video she posted on Twitter on Friday.

She said the chief of staff in the office she worked in as a staffer held her face, kissed her, and forcefully stuck his tongue in her mouth.

“Congress has been a breeding ground for a hostile work environment for far too long,” Speier said in the video.

Her written post included the #MeToo hashtag that has caught fire in the wake of the scandal around allegations of sexual harassment and assault against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.

“It’s time to throw back the curtain on the repulsive behavior that until now has thrived in the dark without consequences,” Speier said.

She also encouraged current and former staffers to share their own stories of being sexually harassed with the hashtag #MeTooCongress.

Speier’s office has reached out to other lawmakers to gauge interest in co-sponsoring the bill. A source from her staff said Republicans and Democrats from both chambers have expressed enthusiasm for it, but declined to share the names of those lawmakers. 

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.