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Sexual Harassment In The Country's Capitol


Representative Jackie Speier of Northern California joins us. She was one of several congresswomen in Washington, D.C., Democrats and Republicans, who shared personal stories of harassment this week. Representative Speier has been working to try to change the way harassment is dealt with in the U.S. Congress. And she joins us from Northern California.

Representative Speier, thanks so much for being with us.

JACKIE SPEIER: Good morning. It's great to be with you.

SIMON: You have recounted this assault by a congressional chief of staff, which I'll leave to you to describe, similar to the one we heard from Washington state. When that happened to you, did you have any effective way to complain or call for that man to be fired, as he should've been?

SPEIER: No, I had no effective way. And frankly, staff in Congress right now have no effective way, you know, 35 years later. When it happened to me, you know, I was in my early 20s. It was in 1970. And it was, you know, a time when sexual harassment wasn't even a term of art. And the courts had not yet opined that it was a civil right that had been violated under Title VII. So it was, you know, very early on.

You fast-forward to today, sexual harassment is prohibited. There's laws about it. And even in the halls of Congress, a victim - and I'm very concerned about staff. They have virtually no recourse, even though we have what's called an Office of Compliance. But it's really set up to protect the institution, protect the perpetrator and not necessarily provide any benefits to the victim whatsoever.

SIMON: I mean, I've read this week that with the Office of Compliance, among other things, they require the complainant - the victim - to have a cooling-off period.

SPEIER: Well, not only that, it requires the complainant to come in, and they have what's called counseling. It's supposed to be legal counseling for 30 days. It's just basically telling them what the process is. Then they have another 30 days in which they're in mediation. And at the beginning of that mediation, they have to sign a non-disclosure agreement that is in perpetuity and ironclad. And then after that 30 days of mediation, they have 30 days of cooling off before they can file a claim in the Office of Compliance or a case through the courts.

SIMON: Now, Speaker Paul Ryan on Friday called for House members to receive mandatory sexual harassment training. And Senator Grassley of Iowa, also a Republican, agrees even though he apparently opposed such a measure in 1995.

Do you find this encouraging?

SPEIER: Well, of course it's encouraging. I mean, I think we have reached a tipping point. I introduced legislation in 2014 requiring mandatory sexual harassment training for members and staff, and it would not even be taken up in the Rules Committee to be made appropriate to take up on the House floor. I've introduced a bill this week that is bipartisan in nature and has the support of members on the House Administration Committee, so we're optimistic. But that that is just the beginning. The Office of Compliance needs to be changed and reformed dramatically so that the victims have a fair shot at getting some kind of justice.

SIMON: Yeah. Is that complicated by the fact that each congressional office operates independently?

SPEIER: Well, it is, and it is not. There's a requirement that every member and staff receive ethics training. So we already have a, you know, a mandate for that. So there shouldn't be any issues requiring mandatory sexual harassment training. The interesting thing this week is I've had a number of members come up to me and say, gee, how do you go about getting that training? I gave my staff and myself that training back in 2014 and again very recently. And there's very little uptake, historically, in having that training. So we're on the road to some recovery. But I just had a young woman who was sexually harassed in my office for an hour and a half this week. And her trauma that she's gone through was just totally unacceptable.

SIMON: This was someone who worked in the Congress who came to you?

SPEIER: Yes, until very recently. Right. So we have a lot of work to do if we're really going to make this a victim-friendly program and office.

SIMON: Representative Jackie Speier is a Democrat from the San Francisco area.

Thanks so much for being with us.

SPEIER: It's great to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.