A bipartisan group of lawmakers joined Rep. Jackie Speier to introduce new legislation that takes aim at sexual harassment in Congress.
“For all intents and purposes, a staffer in the Capitol is powerless and gagged,” Speier, a California Democrat, said Wednesday at the beginning of a news conference in the Capitol Visitor Center. Harassers are often allowed to walk away to prey on others, she said.
Joining Speier at the conference were fellow Democrats, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Rep. Ann McLane Kuster of New Hampshire, as well as Republican Reps. Ryan A. Costello of Pennsylvania and Bruce Poliquin of Maine.
The legislation, dubbed the Member and Employee Training and Oversight On Congress Act, or ME TOO Congress, would make response training for sexual harassment mandatory for all members and staff, including interns and fellows. It would also require all hearings be completed within 180 days after a complaint is filed.
Counseling and mediation would be optional under the bill, which would also create an optional victims’ counsel and allow complaints to be made anonymously.
“It protects the vulnerable, it levels the playing field and creates transparency,” Speier said.
Watch: Speier — Current Congressional Sexual Misconduct Policy Belongs in ‘Dark Ages’
At a House Administration Committee hearing Tuesday, Speier disclosed that two current members of Congress, a Republican and a Democrat, had sexually harassed congressional staff in the past.
“These harassers [made] propositions such as ‘Are you going to be a good girl?’” she said. She also spoke of misconduct from “perpetrators exposing their genitals, to victims having their private parts grabbed on the House floor.”
At the same hearing, Virginia Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock recalled being told of male lawmaker, currently serving in Congress, who greeted a female staffer at his house in a towel, then invited her inside and exposed himself. Comstock said she did not know who the member was.
The legislation unveiled Wednesday would also prohibit nondisclosure agreements as a condition of filing a complaint.
“There is a serious sexual harassment problem in Congress and too many congressional offices are not taking this problem seriously at all,” Gillibrand said. “Congress should never be above the law. Congress should never play by its own set of rules.”
Speier said Tuesday on MSNBC’s “Meet the Press Daily” that Congress has spent $15 million in settlements for harassment, a figure that also includes discrimination cases. Under the proposed legislation, a member of Congress would be required to pay the Treasury the settlement amount in the event of in-office harassment.
“Bringing greater transparency and accountability to the procedures for filing and investigating a complaint is really what’s missing,” Costello said.
The legislation would also list the involved members’ offices in settlements, he said.
“We have an obligation through our chief of staff to have an HR component to our job,” Costello said. “I think all of our constituents will want to know that we take that obligation seriously.”
Poliquin said the executive branch already has a protocol for addressing harassment and it was time for Congress to have a procedure in place.
Speier said she was encouraged by the recent actions of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan and was hopeful her bill would move forward.
Ryan announced Tuesday that all House members and their staff would be required to take mandatory anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training.
The goal, the Wisconsin Republican said, “is not only to raise awareness, but also make abundantly clear that harassment in any form has no place in this institution.”