Members of the US Congress exposed their genitals to co-workers and grabbed victims’ private parts on the House floor, a female Representative has claimed.
Representative Jackie Speier spoke out about the “inexcusable” sexual harassment in Congress during a hearing of the Committee on House Administration. She told the committee she had been “inundated” by reports of sexual harassment on Capitol Hill ever since she began soliciting them via social media.
“From comments like ‘Are you going to be a good girl?,’ to harassers exposing their genitals, to victims having their private parts grabbed on the House floor, women and men have trusted me with their stories,” she said. “All they asked in return was that we fix our abusive system and hold the perpetrators accountable.”
She added that she knows of two current Congress members – one Democrat and one Republican – who have sexually harassed staffers.
In the wake of the hearing, House Speaker Paul Ryan announced the chamber would require sexual harassment and anti-discrimination training for all its members and staff.
"Our goal is not only to raise awareness, but also make abundantly clear that harassment in any form has no place in this institution," he said.
Reports of inappropriate behaviour in Congress have trickled out in recent weeks, after allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein sparked a national dialogue about sexual harassment. Mr Weinstein has denied the allegations.
More than 50 lawyers, lobbyists and former aides recently told The New York Times that sexual harassment is an “occupational hazard” for those working in Washington. One former aide claimed a congressman had grabbed her backside and winked at her. Another accused a senior Senate staffer of trying to pull open her wrap dress at a bar.
Earlier this month, three former female legislators told the Associated Press that they had been harassed or subjected to hostile sexual comments by their male co-workers.
“It’s humiliating, even though they may have thought they were being cute,” former Representative Hilda Solis said. “No, it’s not. It’s not appropriate. I’m your colleague, but he doesn’t see me that way, and that’s a problem.”
But the larger problem, Ms Speier testified on Tuesday, is Congress’s “broken” system of resolving complaints.
The process by which victims currently report harassment can take months, and prohibits the victim from speaking to anyone about the process – even family and friends. The alleged harasser is also given representation free of charge, while the accuser must pay for their own counsel. If a settlement is reached, the number is never disclosed.
“Is it any wonder that many staffers never file formal complaints?” Ms Speier asked the committee. “There is zero accountability and transparency.”
Ms Speier has submitted a bill that would require yearly sexual harassment prevention and response training for members of Congress and their staff. The bill has 20 co-sponsors: 10 Democrats and 10 Republicans. The Senate unanimously approved a similar bill last week.
In advance of Ms Speier’s testimony, about 1,500 former Congressional aides signed on to an open letter asking House and Senate leaders to implement sexual harassment training and reform the complaint system.
At least one Congress member, however, is sceptical of the changes. Representative Rodney Davis said he’d heard concern over whether some offices would take a “short cut” to dealing with sexual harassment, and stop hiring women altogether.