A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced legislation Wednesday that aims to overhaul the way sexual harassment is treated on Capitol Hill, as fresh stories of misconduct involving sitting members of Congress have rocked Washington this week.
Rep. Jackie Speier of California and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, both Democrats, unveiled companion bills in the House and Senate to reform the sexual harassment complaint process on the Hill and boost transparency around the sensitive issue. It will also require members and staff to go through mandatory sexual harassment training every year, and seek to give victims and whistleblowers more support.
During a news conference, Speier said that the current process by which sexual harassment is handled in Congress places an undue burden on those who wish to report harassment.
"For all intents and purposes, a staffer in the Capitol is powerless and gagged," Speier said Wednesday. "Since I shared my own story on #MeTooCongress I've heard from survivors that they have been personally, professionally, emotionally and financially destroyed by the current process. Meanwhile, the harassers go on with his or her life, often times to prey on others."
Reps. Ryan Costello, a Republican of Pennsylvania, Ann McLane Kuster, a Democrat of New Hampshire, and Bruce Poliquin, a Republican of Maine, are co-sponsors of the House bill.
The announcement comes one day after a sexual harassment hearing in the House, in which two female lawmakers accused sitting members of Congress of sexual harassment.
Speier disclosed that there are two lawmakers -- one Democrat and one Republican -- who have been accused of sexual harassment but have not been reviewed yet. Rep. Barbara Comstock, a Republican of Virginia, told a story of a male member of Congress summoning an aide to his residence, then answer the door in a towel before exposing himself.
Speier also said that since sharing her own story of harassment recently, stories have flooded her office, including those of "victims having their private parts" grabbed on the House floor."
During Wednesday's news conference, Speier was asked about the members of Congress that she mentioned as having been accused of sexual assault.
She told reporters that she had not approached the members. When pressed on why, she said, "It's not my role to approach them. I'm here to protect the victims."
"The victims are the ones who do not want this exposed," she added.
House Speaker Paul Ryan announced that the House will require all members and their staffs to participate in anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training.
Speaking at the hearing on sexual harassment in the House, Rep. Greg Harper, the Mississippi Republican who chairs the committee, said that he believed mandatory training was necessary "and probably everyone here would agree."
The Senate last week unanimously approved a resolution requiring all senators, their staffs and interns to be trained on preventing sexual harassment. The legislation Speier and Gillibrand proposed would go further than the changes both chambers implemented over the past week.
"Congress should never be above the law. Congress should never play by its own set of rules," Gillibrand said, adding that there is a "serious sexual harassment problem in Congress and too many Congressional offices are not taking this policy seriously at all."
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