WASHINGTON — Uneasiness filled the room at an otherwise routine congressional budget hearing last week as Rep. Jackie Speier took the microphone and lit into the nation's top military commanders about a crude chain of emails.
Speier, more than most in Congress, does not get intimidated when talking bluntly to Pentagon brass. She has faced tough times before: She was left for dead on the tarmac of an airfield in Guyana during a fact-finding mission 36 years ago, when followers of cult leader Jim Jones killed the congressman she was working for and hit her with five bullets.
Since being elected to Congress in 2008, after two decades in the Legislature, the 63-year-old Democrat from the Bay Area town of Hillsborough has shaped bluntness into a legislative technique.
Speier is not a fiery orator, or a rainmaking fundraiser, or even a charmer. Her tool on Capitol Hill is public anger. She foments it and churns it into political capital.
During 30 years in elective office, she has gone after the California prison guard union, Wall Street and, often, her own colleagues, who sometimes bristled at her attacks. Now she has turned to the Pentagon, crusading to change what she calls a military culture of misogyny.
Her target at the hearing was a set of emails that had recently become public in which an Army commander wrote about a visit to Ft. Bragg in North Carolina by the area's Republican congresswoman, Renee Ellmers. The lawmaker was "smoking hot," then-Col. Martin P. Schweitzer wrote in an email to a superior. In a subsequent email, he made crude references to sexual acts he had committed while thinking about her.
"Nothing happened to him," Speier said in an interview after the hearing, referring to Schweitzer, who was promoted to brigadier general after the emails were written but before the Washington Post obtained and published them. "Nobody showed any concern about this behavior.… How do you expect them to set an example to all of those who report to them?"
Over the last year, sexual assault in the military has become a subject of heightened national discussion and legislative debate. Speier has played a major role in raising the visibility of the issue, rattling the Pentagon using techniques she first honed during her years in Sacramento.
"She has been at this since the beginning," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who is pushing with Speier to shift prosecution of sex crimes out of the military chain of command. "Her fearlessness has allowed her to be a real stalwart in this debate."
Even admirers, though, say Speier can be uncompromising and unnecessarily harsh.
"She has no restraint," said consumer activist Jamie Court, who was a sometime ally of Speier's in Sacramento. "She is no Girl Scout. She is willing to play by whatever means are necessary — so long as they are not unethical — to get what she needs."
"She had an edge such that no one ever wanted to mess with her," said former state Sen. Carole Migden, who also was often an ally in Sacramento.
"She was, I would say, a loner but a person who was self-possessed," Migden added. "She wanted to get things done. It means you ruffle feathers inevitably."
Speier has delivered 29 floor speeches over the last three years about sexual assault in the military, often telling the stories of survivors. Many of those survivors surfaced through a nonprofit group, Protect Our Defenders, that she helped start three years ago. The group has mobilized more than 400 soldiers and veterans to tell Congress of their experiences being victimized by sex crimes.
"She understood this effort needed a movement," said Nancy Parrish, president of the group and a longtime Speier friend.
President Obama signed legislation in December that strips commanders of authority to overturn sex crime convictions. The bill also requires the dismissal of any service member found guilty of such a crime and gives new legal and support services to those who report being attacked.
But Speier, Gillibrand and several other lawmakers are championing a bigger change: a shift in who can initiate and control military prosecutions for rapes and other sexual assaults.
"You talk to these survivors who endured a rape and then endured the second betrayal of a commander telling her [that] reporting it may end her career," Gillibrand said. "They deserve a justice system worthy of their service."
Last week, as Speier grilled Pentagon officials at the House budget hearing, Gillibrand fell just a handful of Senate votes short of the 60 needed to advance the bill.
The Pentagon has powerful allies in fighting the Gillibrand bill. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), another crusader for victims of sexual assault in the military, contends that stripping commanders of responsibility would only exacerbate the problem. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) argues the same.
"Anything truly groundbreaking is not going to happen overnight," Speier said. "You've got to be willing to bring up the bill again and again."
In Sacramento, she notes, fellow Democrats continually scuttled tough financial privacy rules she proposed. Speier couldn't get the measure passed playing the inside game. So she teamed up with the chief executive of E-Loan, then a budding firm eager to see consumers put at ease by enhanced privacy protections. His board put $750,000 into a ballot measure tougher than Speier's bill.
"Then I basically walked away from the negotiating table," Speier said. With the threat of the ballot measure looming for the financial industry, Speier's legislation passed, four years after she started the battle.
Soon after, she was picking a fight with the politically potent prison guard union, leading investigations into waste and abuse in the correctional system and into a "code of silence" among the union rank and file.
"We created a hotline," she said. "It was actually a red phone. And we just started getting calls."
Speier did not grow more mellow when she joined Congress in 2008. Instead of giving the customary brief thanks when introduced on the House floor, she launched into a polemic against the Iraq war. Some members walked out.
More recently, when the House cut money for food stamps, Speier was on the floor with a bottle of vodka and a plate of steak. Republican lawmakers who had been on a junket in Russia were each given more cash to feed and lodge themselves during that trip than a food stamp recipient might spend in a year, she charged.
In November, she presented "The Price Is Wrong" awards on the House floor, displaying small pieces of hardware worth a few dollars each on which the Pentagon had managed to spend thousands.
"I wanted to buy whistles with our telephone number on them and stand outside the Metro station at the Department of Defense and hand them out," she said. "My staff has talked me down on that one a couple of times."