WASHINGTON — A major overhaul of the complaint process for victims of workplace sexual harassment in Congress is needed to get rid of provisions that discourage reporting of the incidents and provide legal help to the alleged victims, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) said Wednesday.
Speier and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) led a bipartisan group of lawmakers who introduced the Me Too Congress Act, named for the hashtag campaign that encouraged women to share their stories of workplace sexual harassment and assault. Both have said they were victims of sexual harassment, Speier when she was a staffer before become a House member and Gillibrand during her time in the Senate.
“This bill does three things: It protects the vulnerable, it levels the playing field, and it creates transparency,” Speier said.
The bill aims to simplify the complaint process and remove certain provisions, like mandatory counseling and mediation, that Speier said discourage the alleged victims from reporting their harassment.
One of the most significant provisions would eliminate nondisclosure agreements, which are currently required by congressional procedure and prevent victims from speaking about their experiences, including naming the member or staffer who committed the alleged harassment.
The act also would provide in-house counsel to support victims during the complaint process, expand harassment coverage to include unpaid interns and fellows, and make counseling and mediation voluntary rather than mandatory.
Members of Congress who are found responsible for sexual harassment would be required to reimburse the U.S. Treasury for settlement costs.
In a video on Twitter, Speier described being forcibly kissed by a senior staffer in the 1970s, when she was working as an aide; Gillibrand said a male colleague once grabbed her by the waist and told her: “Don’t lose too much weight, now. I like my girls chubby.”
“I know what it’s like to keep these things hidden deep down inside, I know what it’s like to lie in bed at night wondering if I was the one who had done something wrong,” Speier said in the video.
At Wednesday’s press conference, Speier criticized the Office of Compliance, which handles existing congressional complaints.
“Congress created the Office of Compliance to protect itself, and it has been very successful,” she said, citing the $15 million that office has paid in 260 harassment and discrimination settlements between 1997 and 2016.
In addition to Speier and Gillibrand, the bill’s co-sponsors include Reps. Ryan Costello (R-Penn.), Ann McLane Kuster (D-N.H.), and Bruce Poliquin (R-Maine). Given the bill’s bipartisan support so far, Democrats said they believe they can get enough GOP votes to pass the Me Too Act.