By Casey Tolan
The Mercury News
U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier was a 23-year-old congressional staffer excited about her new job on Capitol Hill when her chief of staff got her alone in a room. Her 50-year-old boss grabbed her face and stuck his tongue down her throat.
At the time, in 1973, there were no official channels to report what had happened, and even the term “sexual harassment” hadn’t entered the vernacular. “There was nothing to do to try and address that behavior,” Speier said in an interview Wednesday. “There was nowhere I could go.”
More than 40 years later, Speier, D-Calif., is leading the charge to make sure that’s not the case for future young staffers facing predatory behavior in Congress. In the last few weeks, she has introduced legislation to streamline harassment reporting procedures, testified at hearings on the topic and shed light on big settlements paid out.
“I’m embarrassed to say it, but I think Congress has been an enabler of sexual harassers for a long time,” said Speier.
As a wave after wave of sexual harassment revelations hit Hollywood, Congress and the media this fall, Speier helped turn the spotlight on Capitol Hill when she went public with her own harassment story for the first time last month.
Speaking into the camera in a YouTube video, she urged other congressional staffers to come forward with their experiences of harassment, blasting the “breeding ground for a hostile work environment” that she said Congress had become.
Now, Speier is the lead sponsor of a bill that would reform the Office of Compliance, the obscure congressional office that investigates, and, activists say, often covers up, sexual harassment.
Victims of harassment in Congress who want to report their experiences have to go through a byzantine process, submitting to mandatory counseling, signing a nondisclosure agreement and waiting months before an investigation into their claims even begins. And only staffers can go through the process, not interns or fellows, who now have no official channels to report sexual harassment.
From 1997 to 2016, the office has paid out $15 million of tax money to settle the cases, both for sexual harassment complaints and other discrimination, without any real transparency or accounting of the claims.
The office “was really created to protect the harassers,” Speier said.
Her legislation would shake that up, prohibiting nondisclosure agreements as a requirement to start an investigation, speeding the process and including interns and fellows. It would also require that members of Congress reimburse the federal Treasury for any sexual harassment settlements paid out because of their actions.
The bill, which was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., has received bipartisan support. While Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., hasn’t publicly commented on the effort to reform the office, he has supported another Speier bill to mandate sexual harassment training for members of Congress and their staff.
This is far from the first time Speier has worked on sexual harassment. As a California state assemblywoman and senator between 1986 and 2006, she wrote legislation mandating sexual harassment training. She said the recent allegations of sexual harassment in Sacramento _ where almost 150 women wrote a letter decrying a culture of harassment, were disturbing.
“I’m dismayed that (the training) didn’t have the effect we wanted,” she said. “It does seem like it’s an ‘Animal House’ up there right now, it’s disgusting.”
She urged California’s legislative leaders to take swift action. “It starts at the top,” she said. “To the extent that the leadership tolerates it, the conduct exists.”
Sara Velasco, who worked on sexual harassment policy as an employee of the state Senate Rules Committee in the ’90s, said Speier’s policy was inspirational. “She was very progressive on this issue,” Velasco said.
After being elected to Congress in 2008, Speier has worked on issues like sexual assault in the military and on college campuses. In 2014, she tried to pass an amendment to the legislative budget mandating sexual harassment prevention training, but the chair of the rules committee didn’t allow the measure to be debated. She also tried to add in more funding in the legislative budget for the OOC to do more outreach, only to have that money removed in negotiations.
“There was no willingness to look at this issue at all,” she said, unlike in recent weeks. “To see the change this dramatic is reassuring that if you take full advantage of timing, you can accomplish a lot,” she said.
But Speier says she knows that national attention can be fickle, and thinks that she and other advocates may have a limited window to pass reforms while the focus is on sexual harassment. She pointed to the long-running debate over gun control, noting how congressional resolve to pass more firearm regulations gains steam after a mass shooting, only to dissolve within weeks or even days.
“This has captured the interest of every American,” she said of the harassment issue. “I do think that we are in a defining moment culturally, which, at my age, I’m just reassured is happening.”
That moment definitely hadn’t happened in 1973, when Speier was forcibly kissed by the chief of staff in her office, Joe Holsinger, who died in 2004. The two worked in the office of Rep. Leo Ryan, whose old district Speier now represents.
Speier was shocked when Holsinger grabbed and kissed her, not understanding how he could think it was acceptable. “I recoiled, and I made sure I was never alone with him in a room ever again,” she said.
Going public with the YouTube video wasn’t the first time that Speier used her own experiences as powerful arguments in policy debates. She made headlines in 2011 when she gave an impromptu speech on the House floor about having an abortion after doctors told her she was losing a baby that she desperately wanted.
Talking about her experience of harassment was a good way to urge Congress to act, said Jessica Levinson, a law professor at Loyola University.
“Lawmakers make better policy when they have a variety of experiences,” Levinson said. “It’s vitally important that this isn’t just something where we get outside testimony of how sexual harassment can affect people, but it’s someone on the inside who can say, ‘Let me talk to you about my personal experience.'”
Since she released the video, Speier said she’s talked in person to four House staffers and on the phone to “many others” who have experienced harassment or assault.
Leeann Tweeden, a California newscaster, said she decided to publicly accuse Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., of harassing and groping her, after interviewing Speier and hearing her story. Tweeden wrote in an article that she came forward because she wanted to have the same effect on other victims of harassment “that Congresswoman Jackie Speier had on me.”
“I want them, and all the other victims of sexual assault, to be able to speak out immediately, and not keep their stories, and their anger, locked up inside for years, or decades,” she wrote.
Speier has said she knows of two current members of Congress, one a Democrat and the other a Republican, who have been accused of sexual harassment. Neither of those is Franken or Rep. John Conyers, who was also the subject of public allegations this week, she said.
“Women and men who are inspired by public service come to Congress,” she said, “and we have to create an environment that’s not hostile.”