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Rep. Jackie Speier: When it comes to sexual harassment, "we need to clean up our collective act"

Rep. Jackie Speier speaks during a House Administration Committee hearing on Preventing Sexual Harassment in the Congressional Workplace on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 14, 2017. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

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There has been an unprecedented public reckoning with unchecked sexual harassment and assault in the workplace in the past few months that shows no signs of slowing down. Just today came news of allegations against two more high profile individuals: NBC’s Matt Lauer and Minnesota Public Radio’s Garrison Keillor. (MPR is a subsidiary of American Public Media Group, the parent company of Marketplace).

In the midst of the #MeToo campaign and calls for change, California Rep. Jackie Speier has become a leading voice in the fight to bring accountability for sexual harassment to government. She is one of the co-sponsors of a bipartisan bill that would require sexual harassment training for members of Congress and has spoken out on the issues with the sexual harassment reporting system on Capitol Hill, which she describes as there “to protect the harasser.”

“I’ve worked on this issue for so long. You know in 2014 when I tried to amend the House rules to require mandatory sexual harassment prevention training, I was flat out told, ‘we’re not going to make your amendment an order, to even take it up,'” Speier told us. “So, the fact that today we’re going to have a House vote that will probably be unanimous or nearly unanimous is a huge step forward, on the one hand. On the other hand, we still have this byzantine system that protects the harasser and not the victim. And that’s what we need to spend the next month or so fixing.”

In a wide-ranging interview with Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal, Speier spoke about why government has lagged behind industry when it comes to sexual harassment training and awareness, how sexual harassment allegations in government get politicized, and why a cultural change is finally on the horizon.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Kai Ryssdal: You have been working on this issue for years. And now we are at a moment when things seem to be working really really quickly. You look, just this morning, Matt Lauer. It comes out, and he’s out, and yet people look at Congress and it seems to be grinding so slowly. How come?

Jackie Speier: Because we have a problem. We think we’re special here. And one of the points that I’ve been trying to make is that the institution is special. We are not. And the problem that most politicians have is that they want to be liked, so they don’t want to go out on a limb and say that a colleague shouldn’t be serving here. It’s left to their constituents. Well if that’s the approach we’re going to take then why is it a CEO of a company can be booted out, not by the shareholders, but by the board of directors. So we’ve got to convene a “board of directors” to handle these kinds of incidents.

Ryssdal: So, the process though in Congress for handling these incidents — well you’re sitting there shaking your head and rolling your eyes — I mean it’s 

Speier: It’s an embarrassment. It is an absolute embarrassment.

Ryssdal: It takes forever. It’s onerous.

Speier: It is, in my opinion, a process to protect the harasser. We, as members of Congress, have enabled harassers to continue to operate with total impunity.

Ryssdal: There’s also the not small matter of using taxpayer money to pay settlements for harassment that occurs by members of Congress, and other workplace incidents. $17 million over the past certain number of years.

Speier: So it’s $17 million for all forms of office activities. Whether it’s over, you know, lack of overtime payment or discrimination.

Ryssdal: Harassment.

Speier: Harassment. I’ve been told by the Office of Compliance a very small amount is from sexual harassment.

Ryssdal: Okay, but wait you’re the woman leading the charge on this in Congress and you don’t actually even know?

Speier: That’s right. I mean, what we’ve just found out is right now these settlements once they’re drafted have to be approved by the chair of the House Administration Committee, not the chair and ranking member, the chair. So whoever’s chair, if they reject it then there’s no payment made and if they approve it then the ranking member can also sign on. None of it makes sense. Now, the fact that a member of Congress can negotiate a settlement, not be outed and have the taxpayers pick up the tab — whether it’s out of their member’s account or out of a special fund — to me is outrageous.

Ryssdal: Well, so here’s the question. Are you going to author a bill? Are you going to get some co-authors to disclose those payments? To disclose on whose behalf they were made?

Speier: So, I have introduced the ME TOO Congress Act which is a bipartisan, bicameral legislation that provides that level of transparency. It provides that members who are found to have sexually harassed would have to pay back the Treasury for the amount of money. Now, there is resistance from a number of members, right now saying, “well that’s not fair,  when a police officer is sexually harassing someone, it’s the taxpayers pick up the tab. And why would we treat members any different than other federal employees?” I don’t embrace that position. But there’s strong sentiment among some of my colleagues to say, “that’s not fair.” I think it’s not fair to have a harassing, hostile work environment.

Ryssdal: Well that’s at least a part of this right? That Congress is, in the final analysis, it’s a workplace. And yet, somehow the rules don’t apply to y’all?

Speier: Well the rules have to apply to us. And I think what we have uncovered is a a dark secret that has for too long created an environment where there was no place for someone who was a victim to go. And right now there is no place for an intern or fellow to go and sometimes they are preyed upon worse than anyone else.

Ryssdal: What do you tell the young women in your office? I mean, they’re sitting out there answering the phones right now. What do you tell them during the first couple of weeks on the job?

Speier: Well, we have a very strict anti-sexual harassment policy. Everyone has been trained. Everyone has had in-person training. I want to change all that. I want to make sure that every woman who works in Congress, can pursue a career in public service and not be pawed by either a chief of staff or a fellow employee or the member themselves.

Speier: So, in one case it actually has a nondisclosure agreement attached to it.

Ryssdal: It has happened to you. You’ve told your “Me Too” story when you were a much younger woman. You said, in a hearing a month or so ago, you know of members of Congress right now who have accusations against them. Why are you not disclosing who those members are?

Ryssdal: You see the problem with that, right?

Speier: I do see the problem. I don’t want to see NDAs imposed on any victim. If they voluntarily want to sign an NDA, that’s up to them. But I am really concerned about the victims here. And they got lost in all of this. Sure, the member should be outed. But, the victim is the one who gets chewed up in the end. It’s the victim who is blackballed from ever working in another office on the Hill. And so I am first and foremost going to protect these victims. Now I want to change it; I want to change the system. I want to make sure these members are called out. I want to make sure that they pay back the U.S. Treasury. But right now that is not the law.

Ryssdal: I appreciate your concern for the for the victims, and please don’t misunderstand the question. The question is, why will you not say, listen these are the members who have charges against them? Allegations rather, excuse me.

Speier: Because, the victim has signed a nondisclosure agreement. If the victim is said to have violated that nondisclosure agreement they lose their settlement money.

Ryssdal: Do you think we have some momentum now?

Speier: Yes I do. I really do.

Ryssdal: It’s funny you’re smiling, for the first time in this entire chat.

Speier: Because I’ve worked on this issue for so long. You know in 2014 when I tried to amend the House rules to require mandatory sexual harassment prevention training, I was flat out told, “we’re not going to make your amendment an order, to even take it up.”

Ryssdal: That’s crazy.

Speier: So, the fact that today we’re going to have a House vote that will probably be unanimous or nearly unanimous is a huge step forward, on the one hand. On the other hand, we still have this byzantine system that protects the harasser and not the victim. And that’s what we need to spend the next month or so fixing.

Ryssdal: On the third hand, what do we do about Congressman Conyers and Sen. Franken?

Speier: I believe the women. And, if you believe the women, there’s a pattern of sexual harassment. Now, they’ve both been referred to the Ethics Committee. The Ethics Committee has the authority to review, to investigate. They can certainly do that in short order. And they should then provide a decision.

Ryssdal: Do you think they should step down?

Speier: I think that the Ethics Committee will make their recommendation. I think that the Congress will then have to decide whether they want to censor, reprimand, expel or fine.

Ryssdal: So, with all respect, that gets us back to the beginning. Where the speed with which the private sector works does not apply here. And yet the allegations are, if not as serious, then certainly extremely grave. What are citizens supposed to see when they look at Congress doing this? Or, not doing this?

Speier: We have got to create a system that protects victims. That protects employees from working in a sexual harassing environment. When an employee files a complaint, it should be handled swiftly. They should be respected. They shouldn’t be taunted. They should be given every opportunity to be represented by counsel or an ombudsman, and they should not be forced into mediation if they don’t want to go into mediation. They should be able to take it directly to federal court, if that’s what they want to do, or file a complaint and have it heard by a hearing officer.

Ryssdal: Here we have allegations, on the record, against sitting members of Congress. We have to let those members continue to serve, until they decide not to?

Speier: No, that’s why we have an Ethics Committee investigation going on. Believe me, this wouldn’t have even happened six months ago. So the fact that the Ethics Committee has been called upon to investigate is how that process works now. Now, we could decide that moving forward we need a separate entity to prevent these cases. That maybe it shouldn’t go to the Ethics Committee. I don’t know what we will decide in the end. But, much like the board of directors of a company, I think we have to recognize that decisions have to be made for the institution and for the victims.

Ryssdal: This is perhaps a naive question, but since we’ve seen it so much in the past 10 days or two weeks, do you suppose it’s possible to not have incidents like this be politicized? Where, if it’s a guy in your party, “well, let’s give him some due process.” If it’s a guy in the other party, hang him.

Speier: I think they all have to be treated the same way. And there are members on both sides of the aisle who have engaged in sexual harassing conduct, and who have non-disclosure agreements that they have signed off on and that virtually no one knows about.

Ryssdal: Are you surprised with the near-unanimity you expect to get on this vote today? I mean, the Speaker is on board with your vote, the whole deal.

Speier: You know, it’s interesting four weeks ago I had conversations with some members who said the following, “you know each of us is the CEO of our office and I don’t think anyone should be in a position to require us to do anything.” And I said, “well, we are required to have ethics training that’s mandatory Congress-wide.” So here we had a situation where members were saying, “no, I think voluntary it’s fine, but mandatory no.” Well, it’s now come from up high that yes, we are going to have mandatory sexual harassment prevention training and I think you’re going to see near-unanimity. It always comes from the top.

Ryssdal: Let me ask you this, we just got back from break, you went back to San Francisco right? Are people talking about this back there?

Speier: You know where I’m hearing about it most? In the halls of Congress.

Ryssdal: Are you?

Speier: I’m having women come up to me and say, “thank you so much.” And then they’re telling me stories, stories that never get even heard because they never file complaints. 70 percent of those who are sexually harassed never even report it. So, one of the stories that I’m going to tell on the floor, because it happened on the floor, is a situation where a staffer was in charge of the computer in the back of the room. It was late night, vote call, a member comes up to her, rubs up against her and sticks his tongue in her ear. On the House floor with members everywhere. We need to clean up our collective act. 

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