#MeToo: Congress's sexual harassment problem

FILE - In this March 10, 2011, file photo, Rep. Jackie Speier D-Calif., listens to testimony during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. One current and three former female members of Congress tell The Associated Press they have been sexually harassed or subjected to hostile sexual comments by their male colleagues while serving in the House. Speier of California has recently gone public with an account of being sexually assaulted by a male chief of staff while she was a congressional staffer. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

The viral #MeToo campaign is raising awareness about sexual harassment in the workplace. The movement ermeged amid several high-profiled sexual misconduct allegations involving Hollywood and media moguls.

Now -- attention is shifting to Congress ,and how the legislative branch handles these complaints.

“I don’t think we can stick our heads in the sand and pretend it’s not going on, because it is,” said Rep. Jackie Speier, a Democrat from California.

Speier and Michigan Democratic Rep. Brenda Lawrence are leading the charge on overhauling how sexual harassment complaints are handled.

“We have an institution for the most part which has been an enabler to those who do the harassing,” said Speier.

Last month, Spierer shared her #MeToo story in a video where she recounted an unwanted sexual advancement made by the chief of staff when when she was a young congressional aide.

“He took his hands, put them on my face and kissed me, and stuck his tongue into my mouth,” Speier said. “He never tried it again, and I made sure that I was never in a situation where I was alone with him again.”

She hopes telling her story will give others on Capitol Hill the strength to come forward and share their own stories of sexual harassment.

Spierer is introducing legislation to overhaul how the Hill deals with sexual misconduct. There is no Human Resources department and the Office of Compliance handles sexual harassment allegations.

“The Office of Compliance and the process is antiquated and it was designed to only protect the institution and the harasser. It creates all kinds of obstacles and hurdles for victims to jump through in order to get the justice she deserves,” Speier said.

Right now, victims of alleged sexual harassment first have to undergo mandatory 30 days counseling and then 30 days of mediation. The entire process can take up to three months before a victim can file a complaint.

The other major challenge for victims of sexual harassment is fear of retaliation, employment lawyer Debra Katz said.

“You have very powerful men employing people who are eager to get a start in their careers, and if they speak out if they report a members it is completely career-derailing and they will never work in this town again,” Katz said.

Speier has been working on legislation since 2014 to make sexual harassment training mandatory for both House members and employees because currently, it’s optional.

"How is it that the executive branch, all federal employees are required to have mandatory sexual harassment training -- but here in Congress, neither the member nor the staff are required to have sexual harassment training?" Speier saidsaid.

Lawrence is also working on a separate but related bill to mandate sexual harassment training on the Hill.

“Ethics training is mandatory, cyber security is mandatory, but sexual harassment is optional? That is unacceptable,” said Lawrence.

Currently, all sexual harassment settlements are paid out by the US Treasury. There is no way for taxpayers to know which lawmakers were allegedly involved in these lawsuits. Speier's bill seeks to change that.

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