U.S. House To Review Sexual Harassment Policies After Reports From Former Lawmakers

Nov 8, 2017
Originally published on November 8, 2017 9:31 pm
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Usually it takes a scandal that rocks the Capitol to get lawmakers to change the way they do business. But lawmakers in the House and Senate aren't waiting to take steps to mandate sexual harassment training. This is happening as a wave of harassment scandals reverberate across the country since the allegations against Harvey Weinstein were reported. NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis has more from Capitol Hill.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Minnesota Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar is the co-author of a proposed rules change that would mandate sexual harassment training for everyone - yes, even senators.

AMY KLOBUCHAR: It is necessary just as it is in any workplace. You should have harassment training. Secondly, we're supposed to be the example for the country. And while we know a number of offices were doing training, we think it's important to make it mandatory.

DAVIS: It's a small but significant shift on Capitol Hill, where sexual harassment training is already available. But it's optional. It's up to each individual lawmaker to decide whether to mandate it for their own staff. The House Administration Committee, which oversees the management of the House of Representatives, is holding a hearing next week to review existing training and policies to report sexual harassment cases. It's part of a review ordered by House Speaker Paul Ryan. And Chairman Gregg Harper of Mississippi says it's one he's taking very seriously.

GREGG HARPER: The Committee on House Administration is committed to work through to make sure that this is a place that sexual harassment does not exist and that we have an opportunity for any person who has gone through anything has a way to report that.

DAVIS: Congress has not escaped the recent wave of sexual harassment claims. California Democratic Congresswoman Jackie Speier was the first to come forward with her story in late-October as part of the hashtag #MeToo social media awareness campaign. She posted a YouTube video in which she recounted harassment she endured decades ago as a young Capitol Hill aide.

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JACKIE SPEIER: I was working as a congressional staffer. The chief of staff held my face, kissed me and stuck his tongue in my mouth. So I know what it's like to keep these things hidden deep down inside. I know what it's like to lie awake in bed at night, wondering if I was the one who had done something wrong.

DAVIS: She also suggested Capitol Hill is ripe for harassment. It's a place where thousands of young workers could easily be intimidated by powerful people who could hold great sway over their career paths. Just this week, Michigan Democratic lawmaker Brenda Lawrence put her chief of staff on administrative leave, pending a formal review after three female staffers came forward with complaints against him. Here's Speier again.

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SPEIER: Many of us in Congress know what it's like because Congress has been a breeding ground for a hostile work environment for far too long.

DAVIS: Speier encouraged other lawmakers and staffers with harassment stories to come forward, and many have. At least four additional past and current female lawmakers have said they were verbally sexually harassed as members of Congress. But none have named their harassers, and no male lawmakers have been accused of any wrongdoing.

What male lawmakers are doing is letting their female colleagues lead the way here. Harper has asked Speier to testify at next week's House hearing. She has two proposals to mandate sexual harassment training and make it easier to file complaints. Senate Rules Committee Chairman Richard Shelby of Alabama says he's deferring to Klobuchar and West Virginia Republican Senator Shelley Moore Capito to take the lead on likely Senate rules changes.

RICHARD SHELBY: We thought that it would be good that we do it in a bipartisan way - a Democrat and a Republican - two women rather than a bunch of men. Does that make sense?

DAVIS: It sure does. Susan Davis, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.