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Agency Faces Big Job, Small Budget

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.

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