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Legislators Move To Take On Sexual Harassment In Their Own Halls

Dec 5, 2017
Originally published on December 5, 2017 11:09 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Michigan Democrat John Conyers has announced his retirement. He spoke with Mildred Gaddis, a local Detroit radio host this morning.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE MILDRED GADDIS SHOW")

JOHN CONYERS: I want everyone to know how much I appreciate the support - the incredible, undiminished support - I’ve received across the years.

MARTIN: The congressman’s attorney later confirmed to NPR that his resignation is effective immediately. Conyers was one of several members of Congress who’s facing sexual harassment allegations, and lawmakers from both parties face accusations of improper conduct. Texas Republican Blake Farenthold said Monday he will pay back the $84,000 in taxpayer funds that he used to settle a sexual harassment claim, but he also said he does not plan to step down.

Earlier this morning, we spoke with Representative Jackie Speier. She is a Democrat from California who co-authored legislation to address sexual harassment in Congress. She said Conyers and other members of Congress who have been credibly accused of sexual harassment should step down.

JACKIE SPEIER: Congress is an environment in which we support members for a very long time, even when they have done bad deeds. And in these cases, we know that there has been either severe or pervasive conduct that rises to the level of sexual harassment. And in any other business or other work environment, you would have these individuals tossed out.

Now, because we are members of Congress and we think that somehow we're special - and I make a big point of saying the institution is special; there's nothing special about any of us. And there's this guise that, well, we'll leave it up to the voters to decide. You know, that's like saying in a business that the CEO, who has sexually harassed - that the board of directors would say - well, we'll wait until the shareholders can have a voice in this at the next annual meeting.

That doesn't happen. The board of directors comes together, makes a decision and, typically, the CEO is out of office. Now, we are - we like to think of ourselves as CEOs of our office. And that's why, for the longest time, we haven't dealt with this issue. Back in 2014, I tried to make us take up an amendment to have mandatory sexual harassment prevention training, and I was shut down before it was even taken up in the subcommittee setting.

MARTIN: So I want to play a clip for you. This is a bit of tape from an interview that we did last week with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. Let's listen to this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

PAUL RYAN: I think we're all realizing that sexual harassment in America is absolutely pervasive. And it's got to go, and we need to end it. And nowhere more is this important to set a standard and example than elected officials. We should be held to a high standard.

MARTIN: So what are you hearing in that? I mean, held to a high standard but not necessarily leave office.

SPEIER: Well, what I'm hearing is a huge change of heart among my Republican colleagues, which is great news. I'm really quite pleased that we passed the training measure by voice vote when I couldn't even get it eligible as an amendment, gosh, three years ago.

MARTIN: This is your legislation that you have been pushing for a long time. It's now getting traction in a new way.

SPEIER: Right. But the most significant part of the legislation is the second bill, which actually would reform the Office of Compliance 'cause right now, there's no reason why a victim would come to that office because they've got to go through 30 days of legal counseling and then mandatory mediation. And then they've got to sign a mandatory nondisclosure agreement in many cases. And then they've got to go through a 30-day cooling-off period. All the while, they are still working in that office that is probably a hostile work environment.

MARTIN: Which is what your legislation is trying to change - to make it less onerous for people who've put out sexual harassment allegations and claims.

I want to ask you, though, about whether or not - it's one thing to express, like, a sentiment that this is a watershed moment. We need to change. We need to be held to a high standard. But Representative Kathleen Rice, your fellow Democrat, from the state of New York walked out of a meeting with your party's leadership on sexual harassment last week. She said they just weren't taking the issue seriously enough. So even though your legislation is at least getting traction and people are saying the right things, are your party's leaders doing enough to change the culture in Congress?

SPEIER: Well, the leader of the Democratic Party, Nancy Pelosi, has come out and said that Mr. Conyers has to go, that he must resign. And also, one of our freshman members Ruben Kihuen, who was - has been suggested of having engaged in sexual harassment - I haven't heard anything from the Republican side in terms of them holding their members to the same level of accountability.

MARTIN: So do I hear you saying that you are optimistic about a larger bipartisan change in Congress on this issue?

SPEIER: I think there will be a greater interest in doing the right thing here. I think there's a movement sweeping this country, which is so reassuring. And I'm hoping that that will have a huge effect on the next generation of young women in the workplace.

MARTIN: Representative Jackie Speier, a California Democrat - thanks so much for your time this morning. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.