WASHINGTON ― Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) said Tuesday that she knows of two members of Congress who are currently in office ― a Democrat and a Republican ― who have sexually harassed staffers.
Speier has been an outspoken advocate for making it easier for individuals who work in Congress to report sexual misconduct. The current lengthy and convoluted process makes it difficult for accusers to step forward and discourages them from doing so.
Speier recently revealed that when she was a staffer on the Hill, the chief of staff in her office sexually assaulted her.
Since sharing her story, she said she has heard from a number of men and women, both current and former staffers, who have been subject to sexual harassment.
“In fact, there are two members of Congress, Republican and Democrat, right now who serve, who have been subject to review or have not been subject to review, but have engaged in sexual harassment,” Speier said in her testimony before the House Administration Committee, which held a hearing on sexual harassment in Congress Tuesday morning.
Speier did not name the members.
The congresswoman also said she had heard of victims “having their private parts grabbed on the House floor.”
Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), a member on the committee, also said she had heard of a congressman who is currently serving who had exposed himself to a young female staffer. She did not know the identity of the congressman.
“This member asked a staffer to bring them over some materials to their residence. And a young staffer ― it was a young woman ― went there and was greeted with a member in a towel. It was a male, who then invited her in. At that point, he decided to expose himself,” Comstock said. “She left, and then she quit her job.”
“What are we doing here for women right now,” she added, “who are dealing with someone like that?”
In recent weeks, after women have spoken out against film producer Harvey Weinstein and other high-profile men for sexual assault, staffers on Capitol Hill have also been telling their own stories about how toxic the culture is in Congress.
Sexual harassment is an open secret on the Hill, with female staffers warning one another about which members or which male aides to stay away from.
Former Rep. Mary Bono (R-Calif.) recently told The Associated Press that when she served in Congress, a male member approached her on the House floor and told her he had been thinking about what it would be like to see her shower. That man, whom she did not name, is still in office.
Recently, 1,500 former congressional staffers signed a letter to the leadership of the House and Senate urging them to put in place mandatory sexual harassment training and revamp the procedures for reporting such behavior.
Women who have spoken with HuffPost said they had no idea where to go when they experienced harassment, especially when the person harassing them was a high-ranking aide like a chief of staff or a legislative director. How the problem is dealt with varies by office.
Speier put up a graphic during Tuesday’s hearing showing the confusing process that staffers have to go through if they want to report harassment.
A staffer reports the incident to the congressional Office of Compliance and then the victim ― not the accused ― must go through mandatory counseling for 30 days. Speier noted that the entire process seems tilted toward the accused, with the harasser receiving free legal counsel through Congress, while the victim is on his or her own.
“I’ve also heard from mediators who say the congressional process is atypical in that survivors don’t have the option to be in separate rooms as defendant’s counsel. And survivors are often addressed in an aggressive manner,” she said.
Interns and fellows don’t even have access to this process.
Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) said he was worried that an unfortunate consequence of the increased awareness around sexual harassment is that offices would avoid hiring female staffers so as not to get caught up in any scandals.
“I have a female-led staff, and I asked them their opinion,” he said during the hearing. “They were concerned … that an unintended consequence may be some offices just take a shortcut and not hire women as a way to avoid these issues. Obviously that’s not the right approach.”
Gloria Lett, the counsel for the Office of House Employment Counsel, said people in her office had also raised that concern and that they were working to remind everyone that such discrimination in hiring is illegal.