Lawmakers Propose Legislation to Stop Sexual Harassment in Congress

Nov 17, 2017

Credit Allegra Boverman / NHPR

A bipartisan group of lawmakers, including House Representative Annie Kuster, have introduced legislation to prevent and respond to sexual harassment in Congress.

The Me Too bill would require more transparency and provide better support for victims and whistleblowers. Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley spoke with Congresswoman Kuster by phone about the bill.

  (Editor's note: this transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.)

Critics have said that the current process in place protects perpetrators and silence is victims. So what do you see that needs to be improved, and how can it be improved?

Well there's a number of steps. The first one is education and prevention, and making sure that the sexual harassment training is mandatory for all employees on Capitol Hill, for interns and fellows who are unpaid people who work on the Hill, and also for all members of Congress. So that's critically important. We've got to set the standard that any kind of discrimination based on sexual harassment or sexual assault is completely unacceptable. And then the second step that we introduced in the bill yesterday is to make sure that we change the process. Currently, the process is very discouraging for victims and survivors of any type of sexual assault or harassment in the workforce. And this will be much more accountable, much more transparent and will provide the option of anonymous reporting for purposes of getting access to treatment and recovery services including counseling.

So I imagine that your hope here is that we'll be hearing from a lot more people who maybe have experienced this, and that they'll feel more comfortable coming forward.

Yes, more comfortable. I myself was the victim of an assault by a guest of the United States Congress when I was a staffer here almost 40 years ago, and we had no place to turn. There was no one to tell, and nothing that could be done. The point of this legislation is to make sure that you could choose to come forward for purposes of getting counseling and support, or you could also choose to come forward for purposes of identifying the perpetrator and making sure that there are consequences. One of the most shocking aspects of this that we've discovered is that there has been sexual harassment settlements made by the United States Congress about specific members of Congress. But that information has not become public. And furthermore the taxpayers have been paying those settlements unbeknownst to their constituents or their colleagues.

I want to ask you more about that, because I think that was a big surprise to a lot of people. Your colleague Congresswoman Jackie Speier of California says there's been millions of dollars paid in settlements involving harassment cases. Why do you think it's taking so long for this issue can become addressed? Why has it taken so long for this issue to come out into the open?

Well as I experienced in my own case, we've had a whole generation of silence on this issue, because there was no upside to a person coming forward, if there weren't going to be consequences, if the situation wasn't going to improve. And there was a significant downside. Women who have come forward in the past they haven't been believed, and they've been discouraged or thwarted in their own careers. You hear many, many, many stories of people who had to leave their field of interest. And when you're 23 years old, and you're in a situation where someone of significant power and influence has harassed you and discriminated you on the basis of your gender, and you don't feel that you have any place to turn where you're going to get a satisfactory response. So what's different I think has happened over the course of the last year—very courageous people. In my case, I was inspired by Chessy Prout right in Concord, who had the situation with the sexual assault at St. Paul's School. And I realized that the silence of my generation it makes us complicit in this environment of rampant sexual assault and sexual harassment in the workplace, in the military, on college campuses, and now cyber bullying and cyber harassment online. We can take this moment to draw the line. The idea that there may be members out there that have settled harassment claims and their constituents never knew about that? That is shocking to me, and it needs to stop.