News and Commentary

Weinstein Effect Hits Washington: Female Lawmakers Allege Harassment By Colleagues

The so-calleld “Weinstein Effect” has ofiicially reached Washington, D.C. While allegations of sexual misconduct among the political class obviously has a long, sordid history, a new report by the Associated Press suggests that the #MeToo movement might be about to shake things on Capitol Hill like it has in the entertainment and media industries.

Last week, California Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier included herself among the #MeToo victims, posting a video describing an alleged sexual assault as a congressional staffer at the hands of a chief of staff. Washington, she said, is a “breeding ground” for such behavior. “A chief of staff held my face, kissed me, stuck his tongue in my mouth,” she said in the post, which included the hashtag #MeTooCongress.

This week AP presented the stories of four women — one current and three former female lawmakers — who allegedly experienced harassment not as low-level staffers but as members of Congress, and at the hands of their colleagues, at least two of whom are still serving. “The incidents occurred years or even decades ago, usually when the women were young newcomers to Congress,” AP explains. “They range from isolated comments at one hearing, to repeated unwanted come-ons, to lewd remarks and even groping on the House floor.”

One of the women, former Republican Rep. Mary Bono (CA) — who served for 15 years after being elected to fill the seat of her deceased husband singer Sonny Bono in 1998 — told AP that one congressional colleague repeatedly made suggestive comments to her, culminating in a line he dropped on the House floor that involved thinking about her in the shower.

“Instead of being ‘how’s the weather, how’s your career, how’s your bill,’ it was ‘I thought about you while I was in the shower,'” she said of the lawmaker, whom she declined to name but noted that he still serves in Congress.

“So it was a matter of saying to him ‘That’s not cool, that’s just not cool,'” she said. After confronting him, Bono said, his increasingly aggressive come-ons stopped.

“It is a man’s world, it’s still a man’s world,” she added. “Not being a flirt and not being a bitch. That was my rule, to try to walk that fine line.” Bono also stressed that her career “didn’t suffer” and she personally “didn’t suffer” because of the alleged harassment.

Another California lawmaker, Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer told AP about a decades-old incident from a hearing in the 1980s in which a colleague made a sexually charged statement in front of others:

The colleague, using the traditional congressional parlance, said he wanted to “associate” himself with her remarks — adding afterward that he also wanted to “associate with the gentle lady.”

Boxer said the comment was met with general laughter and an approving second from the committee chairman. She said she later asked that it be removed from the record.

Actions like that joke, suggested Boxer, are “about power.”

“That was an example of the way I think we were thought of, a lot of us. … It’s hostile and embarrasses, and therefore could take away a person’s power,” said the senator.

Another Democratic California lawmaker, Rep. Linda Sanchez, said that when she was in her early 30s, she was propositioned repeatedly by one married “senior member” of Congress. Though, like Bono, she declined to name him, saying it would not be “helpful,” she noted that he still serves.

“The problem is, as a member there’s no HR department you can go to, there’s nobody you can turn to. Ultimately they’re employed by their constituents,” said Sanchez.

Former California Democrat Rep. Hilda Solis, who likewise declined to name names, said she experienced repeated “unwanted harassing overtures,” as AP put it.

“It’s humiliating, even though they may have thought they were being cute. No, it’s not. It’s not appropriate. I’m your colleague, but he doesn’t see me that way, and that’s a problem,” she said.

Interestingly, Speier, who really got the #MeTooWashington movement rolling, said that she does not think that harassment can really take place between congressional members because they hold equal status and power.

“I think the women in Congress are big girls,” she said. The equalizer that exists in Congress that doesn’t exist in other settings is that we all get paid the same amount and we all have a vote, the same vote. So if you have members that are demeaning you it’s because you’re letting them.”