Politics

Current Lawmakers Have Sexually Harassed Staffers, Speier Alleges

Comstock tells of lawmaker who greeted a former staffer wearing only a towel

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said Tuesday she knows of two current lawmakers who have sexually harassed congressional staff in the past.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Two current lawmakers allegedly have sexually harassed congressional staff in the past. And a former staffer reportedly asked to deliver papers to a member’s home was greeted by him wearing only a towel.

That’s what California Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier and Republican Barbara Comstock of Virginia recounted during a hearing by the House Administration Committee on sexual harassment Tuesday.

Such allegations are rare. Members of Congress seldom criticize colleagues for misconduct, especially when the allegation is sexual harassment. Speier and Comstock’s accounts are among dozens detailing a hostile and predatory environment for female staffers that have emerged after accusations targeting Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein seemingly broke through a conspiracy of silence pervasive in many of the nation’s most respected and influential institutions.

Accusations involving current and former members of Congress and staff have reinvigorated efforts to provide more protections for victims on the Hill. But so far, no prominent lawmakers have been named.

Watch: Speier Says Current Congressional Sexual Misconduct Policy Belongs in 'Dark Ages'

 

“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,” said Speier, who testified at the hearing and questioned witnesses.

Speier said there are two members of Congress, a Republican and a Democrat, “who have engaged in sexual harassment.”

“These harassers [made] propositions such as ‘Are you going to be a good girl?’” Speier said. She also spoke of misconduct from “perpetrators exposing their genitals, to victims having their private parts grabbed on the House floor.”

[Congress Took Three Decades to Come This Far, Sexual Harassment Victim Says]

All staffers want, she said, “is to be able to work in a hostile-free work environment.”

Comstock recalled being told that the member who greeted the former staffer in a towel then invited her into the house and exposed himself to her.

She said she did not know who the member was, but does know that he is still serving in Congress. The Virginia Republican suggested that congressional offices need an explicit harassment policy outlining the relationship between members and their staffs.

Watch: Comstock Tells Sexual Misconduct Story About Current Member

“We really don’t have current guidelines right now that tell a member that a sexual relationship with a 19-year-old intern is off-limits,” Comstock said. “I haven’t seen that in any materials.”

Gloria Lett of the Office of House Employment Counsel told the committee that the House code of conduct only broadly addresses the sexual conduct of members.

Lett’s office represents congressional offices in mediations between an accuser and the perpetrator of sexual harassment. She said “overwhelmingly the mediations concern staff and staff. It very rarely involves the member.”

More than 1,500 former staffers signed a letter to congressional leadership released last week calling for Congress to update its policies on sexual harassment.

Three lawmakers at the hearing — Speier, Comstock and California Democrat Zoe Lofgren — previously worked in congressional offices and pointed to their experiences to highlight the problem of sexual harassment in Congress.

Republican Rodney Davis of Illinois said he had talked to his female staff, who expressed concern that offices would be tempted to hire fewer female employees to avoid the problem of sexual harassment.

Democrat Jamie Raskin of Maryland also highlighted the concerns of his staff.

“My chief of staff says she does not know a single woman in her age group who has not experienced inappropriate conduct in the workplace,” he said.

Sexual harassment training is not mandated in the House, though the executive branch requires it. The Senate passed a bipartisan resolution Nov. 9 requiring such training for all senators and staff by early January.

Three bills introduced in the House in recent days require training, including a resolution from Speier.

Later on Tuesday, Speaker Paul D. Ryan announced that House members and their staffs will now be required to take mandatory anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training.

“Today’s hearing was another important step in our efforts to combat sexual harassment and ensure a safe workplace. I want to especially thank my colleagues who shared their stories,” Ryan said in a statement. 

The goal, he said, “is not only to raise awareness, but also make abundantly clear that harassment in any form has no place in this institution.”

Speier also plans to introduce a bill to reform how sexual harassment is reported. That’s currently handled by the Office of Compliance and requires 60 days of counseling and mediation before an accuser can request a hearing or file a federal district court case. Interns and fellows cannot use the office to report harassment under current policy.

“The current system may have been OK in the dark ages, but it is not appropriate in the 21st century,” Speier said.

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