“The actual process for a victim is indefensible,” said Speier. “First, they have to submit to 30 days of legal counseling.” Afterward, they have to decide whether to go forward with 30 additional days of mediation. If so, said Speier, “they have to sign a [non-disclosure agreement] that is ironclad, and it is in perpetuity.” During mediation itself, said Speier, “often the perpetrator has an attorney who can do things—and has done things—like tell the woman, ‘If you pursue this, this is going to ruin your career.’” Post-mediation, the complainant must wait 30 more days (but not more than 90!) before she can file a lawsuit or request an administrative hearing. “Meanwhile,” said Speier, “they are still sitting in this office in an unbearable situation.”
“The existing process is shockingly biased in favor of the harasser,” said Speier.
Small wonder that women often seek alternative channels for handling problematic men. You’re expecting some junior legislative assistant to go head-to-head with a sitting member of the U.S. Congress, scoffed the former House Democratic aide. “Who’s gonna do that?”
“What happens sometimes is that there is this sub rosa network of staffers who talk about who you should not go to work for or, if you do, never be alone with them,” said Speier.
“I know we all tried to be protective of junior staffers,” confirmed the former House aide. “We’d be like, ‘Hey, watch out for so-and-so. He’s a letch.’”
In her experience, said the former aide, women didn’t have problems with their own bosses so much as with other members. On multiple occasions, she recalled her boss intervening on her behalf to tell his colleagues to “knock it off.” Other women were advised to have their bosses do the same.
Of course, that only works if one’s boss is a stand-up guy. “You would say to the woman, ‘So, have you told your boss?’ In some instances they wouldn’t have, because they knew the complaint would fall on deaf ears or that the their boss was just as bad.”
At that point, the issue would be handed over to an informal network of senior women who were in positions to do something about it. “Or at least they could say, ‘We’ll protect you from that circumstance occurring again.’”
This, needless to say, is not the ideal way for the United States Congress to handle sexual predation among its ranks. But, as with so much in Congress, even the tiniest of baby steps can take forever.
Since 2014, Speier has repeatedly introduced legislation to make sexual harassment training mandatory—as it is in most of the federal government. So far, no luck.
But this year, the atmosphere feels different, she told me. “Thank God for Hollywood,” joked the congresswoman, noting that all the recent scandals have gotten lawmakers increasingly interested in cleaning up their own house. “I think some of them are like, ‘There but for the grace of God go I,’” she laughed.