Agency Faces Big Job, Small Budget

Posted October 15, 2012 at 6:10pm

Headquartered in the John Adams Building of the Library of Congress is the Office of Compliance, a tiny agency with an enormous mandate.

It is responsible for mediating and processing workplace discrimination complaints for the staffers of Members of Congress and the employees of eight legislative branch agencies. It is required to ensure that a dozen private-sector labor laws are being faithfully executed on Capitol Hill.

And it must conduct annual inspections of every inch of the 18 million square feet of the Capitol campus to identify access constraints for people with disabilities and areas where safety hazards pose risks for visitors and staff.

For all these activities, the OOC has a budget of $3.8 million and 22 full-time employees. With so few resources, it can’t be sure every supervisor is facilitating a proper work environment or is even educated about the rules and regulations. It cannot conduct wall-to-wall inspections of the entire Capitol complex, leaving open the possibility that serious health risks could exist.

“Additional funding would allow the OOC to provide comprehensive training to all employees … thereby reducing the number of discrimination claims presented to the Office,” OOC Executive Director Tamara Chrisler said. “We would be able to increase our inspections work, provide more technical assistance and focus more on outreach.

“The OOC’s mission is vast, though our funding is minimal,” Chrisler continued. “[It] makes meeting that mission difficult.”

The 17-year-old agency will release its annual State of the Congressional Workplace report on Thursday. For the occasion, Roll Call took stock of the state of the Office of Compliance and how, through little fault of its own, it might not even be in compliance with itself.

The OOC was established through the 1995 passage of a broader bill aimed at placing Members of Congress under the same workplace laws they applied to the private sector but from which they exempted themselves.

The seeds of the idea might have rooted earlier, but it was during the legislative sessions of the early 1990s that then-Reps. Richard Swett (D-N.H.) and Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) first began a serious effort to pass the Congressional Accountability Act, written in close collaboration with Congressional scholars Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute and Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution. At that time, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) was also working on a version of the legislation.

One of the biggest challenges was how to give the law teeth to implement the new workplace standards and compel supervisors to act accordingly. The solution was to create an independent Office of Compliance within the legislative branch to enforce the rules, free of political influence.

The House passed the Congressional Accountability Act in 1994 by a vote of 427-4, an overwhelming victory Swett attributes in part to threatening to publicly “embarrass people who wouldn’t support it.” 

The full Senate never considered it, and later that year came the Republican wave election of 1994, owed in part to the “Contract With America” — which conveniently listed as its No. 1 must-pass bill one that would “require all laws that apply to the rest of the country also apply to Congress.” 

A modified Congressional Accountability Act was passed in the first days of the 104th Congress.

Swett and Shays have different memories of the events that transpired. Swett, who was defeated in 1994, said the House Republicans’ bill was “weaker” and
“watered-down,” while Shays, who lost his seat in 2008, credits his party for finally shepherding the legislation to law.

But neither could say whether all that was even important if the OOC, vested with implementing the Congressional Accountability Act, has had to consistently pick and choose which mandates to fulfill and which to cut at the corners because of funding shortfalls.

All legislative branch entities have been forced to make budget cuts in recent years, with the OOC being no exception. Veteran workplace rights attorney Debra Katz, however, said that appropriators’ choice to withhold necessary funding from the OOC has always been a deliberate one.

“Members of Congress are very happy with the state of the Office of Compliance, which is an office that is so under-resourced it really can’t do much and discourages employees from filing charges,” Katz said.

Ornstein, a contributing writer for Roll Call, agreed that the agency is cash-strapped but said it shouldn’t surprise anyone: “It’s not a Democratic problem or a Republican problem: It’s a Congressional problem. There’s a fear that if you give [the OOC] a lot of money, they will spend it. … You hire more traffic cops, you’re going to get more traffic violations.”

Of all the lawmakers interviewed by Roll Call who were involved in drafting the Congressional Accountability Act, no one said there were discussions about whether Congress would financially empower an Office of Compliance.

“When we passed the law, we were leaving funding up to the appropriators,” Grassley said recently. “I don’t recall any discussion that this shouldn’t be passed for budget reasons.”

As for whether the OOC has the money it needs now to do its job, Grassley said he hadn’t heard anything about that.

“If they don’t have the money, they have to tell us,” he said.

It’s true the agency has only asked for slim increases from one year to the next, but Chrisler said that doesn’t reflect the OOC’s true financial needs.   

“The OOC has been underfunded for many years. In each appropriations cycle, we have requested funding that would help to shorten the gap. … [It] doesn’t mean we don’t need the funding we didn’t ask for; it just means that we recognize everyone has to tighten their belts,” Chrisler said. “However, it comes a point where you don’t have any more notches left in the belt, and that’s where we are right now.”