For the second consecutive year, Architect of the Capitol employees made more official allegations of Congressional Accountability Act violations than any other legislative branch agency in 2006, according to statistics released by the Office of Compliance last week.
Of the 54 requests for counseling made through the OOC last year, 30 came from AOC employees. In 2005, 34 of the 60 requests for counseling came from AOC employees, while in 2004 the agency was responsible for just 23 of 84 total requests. The Capitol Police, meanwhile, generated 10 requests for counseling in 2006, the second most by agency. Department employees were responsible for 16 requests in 2005 and 37 in 2004.
A request for counseling is the first step in the OOC’s dispute resolution process and eventually can lead to a suit being filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
Perhaps the most well-known example of a request for counseling came in October 2006 when 11 AOC “tunnel shop” crew members filed a request that outlined the discrimination and retaliation they say they experienced ever since reaching out to Congress earlier in the year to make Members aware of the Occupational Safety and Health Act violations that exist in the five-mile-long utility tunnel system that runs beneath Capitol Hill. That request is still working its way through the OOC’s confidential dispute resolution process.
And while a federal court case could result from the matter, OOC statistics from last year show that the vast majority of matters that move through the resolution process are either worked out in counseling or mediation. In fact, of the 69 cases that went to the OOC mediation process in 2006 — including cases pending from the previous year — only two resulted in district court suits being filed while 19 other cases were settled, 22 required no further action, seven went before the OOC’s nonjudicial hearing process and the rest remained open by the time the OOC’s 2006 annual report was filed.
But dispute resolution is only part of the job of the Office of Compliance. Another of the agency’s core missions is to conduct comprehensive health and safety inspections of all legislative branch facilities over the course of each Congress, and in its annual report the OOC noted that the 109th Congress inspections were far more comprehensive than any undertaken since the office was created by the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995.
About 96 percent of OOC-covered premises in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area were inspected in the 109th and more than 13,000 violations were documented. The report called the 109th inspections the agency’s first “baseline inspection,” which now gives the OOC an accurate picture of health and safety conditions throughout the CAA-covered facilities. (By comparison, the OOC had the resources to inspect only about a quarter of covered premises in the 108th Congress, resulting in about 2,600 violations.)
Each problem found by the inspectors during tours of legislative branch facilities is assigned a “risk assessment code,” which ranks the violation’s level of severity. The violations range from tripping and fire hazards caused by overuse of extension cords — the most prevalent violation in Members’ offices — to more severe violations such as uninclosed stairwells, lack of or insufficient fire doors, and missing sprinkler coverage, all of which could become life-threatening hazards in the event of a fire.
In addition to its mandate to complete biennial inspections of the legislative branch, the OOC also responds to requests for inspections generated by employees, unions or even employing officers who suspect an unsafe condition exists in a legislative branch workspace. Twenty-two requests for inspections were filed with the OOC in 2006, mostly for health issues.
OOC General Counsel Peter Eveleth said last week that the challenge going forward will be to ensure that the 13,000 hazards identified during the 109th inspections are promptly abated and that employing offices put in place programs to prevent the occurrence of such a large number of hazards in the future.
Eveleth and his team already have begun inspection tours for the 110th Congress and in addition to the more than 15 million square feet of space that the OOC inspected in the 109th Congress, the agency also will be responsible for an additional 829,000 square feet of space that will result from the Library of Congress’ National Audiovisual Conservation Center in Culpeper, Va., and the Capitol Visitor Center. Next week, OOC inspectors plan to complete their biennial walk-throughs of the 636,000 square feet of space at the LOC’s Jefferson Building.
During the 110th Congress, “We’ll be looking more into not only monitoring abatement but also beginning to look at safety programs that the offices have,” Eveleth said. “These offices are responsible for creating their own safety programs to ensure that accidents are prevented. … What we are trying to do is to encourage them to be proactive in doing their own audits so if you look five years down the road, what I would like to see happen is that we would be more of an office that would be a reality check to help them point out things they might have missed.”