Report: Change Term Limits for OOC Leadership

Posted February 4, 2004 at 6:07pm

A General Accounting Office report released Wednesday concluded that the Office of Compliance is in the early stages of a “concerted and vitally needed” effort to refocus on its overall goal of implementing the Congressional Accountability Act.

One of the report’s most pointed assertions included a recommendation that Congress revise the portion of the landmark 1995 law that created the office to allow the board of directors and appointed officers to serve longer than one unrenewable five-year term each.

“A key factor that could affect OOC’s management control is the lack of institutional continuity due to the term limits of OOC’s board and senior leadership positions and the impending required turnover of these individuals,” states the GAO report.

“Congress should consider amending the CAA to allow Board members to be reappointed by the Congress to an additional term. In addition, the Congress should consider allowing OOC’s executive director, general counsel, and two deputy executive directors to be reappointed to serve additional terms,” it continues.

Eight out of nine members of the office’s senior leadership will be gone by September 2006. The terms of the entire board are up within eight months of each other, beginning later this year. Additionally, the terms of every senior executive — except the general counsel, whose tenure began later because of the early exit of a previous general counsel — will expire within six months of each other in 2006.

“The office is very supportive of GAO’s recommendation regarding lifting of term limits,” Executive Director Bill Thompson said. “The role played by the office is very complex and the ability of a small agency to operate effectively in as complex an environment as Capitol Hill depends greatly on the practical experience and the relationships which are developed with the regulated community and Congressional stakeholders.”

The report was mandated as part of the fiscal 2003 appropriations bill. Although the Senate joined the request later, Rep. Charles Taylor (R-N.C.), who then chaired the Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch, made the original request of GAO to do the study. In a report accompanying the same spending measure, Taylor included acerbic language criticizing the office for alleged “management deficiency” and proposed changes, later removed, that could have weakened its independence.

The report touches on some of the lead-up to that confrontation.

“Some Congressional staff members and agency officials said that OOC had recently shown a new attitude and approach in its work that is characterized by greater collaboration and cooperation rather than a ‘gotcha’ approach that they said often characterized OOC’s past efforts,” the report reads.

“On the other hand, several agency officials said that interactions with OOC were not good. They said, for example, that OOC failed to always follow its own rules and procedures when conducting investigations of health and safety complaints.”

John Scofield, a spokesman for the House legislative branch subcommittee, said panel staff members were “pleased” with the report, as it “showed some of the concerns” Members had are being addressed — “that they have a more conciliatory approach, that they have less of a ‘gotcha’ mentality. The agency is actually moving in the right direction. ”

As for the revisions of the term limits, he added, “I think we’re sympathetic. It’s something we’d look into.”

A spokesman for the House Administration Committee, which oversees the agency, said Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) had not yet seen the report “but looks forward to reading it.”

Since its inception in 1995 to implement and enforce the CAA — which applied federal workplace laws to Congress for the first time — the office has had a tumultuous relationship with Congress. That tension is partially due to the unwelcome reception some of the laws themselves — the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Federal Service Labor-Management Relations Act, among 10 others — received on Capitol Hill. But in no small part, bitter personal relations between some formerly in the office and key Members and committee aides also led to the acrimony.

The report recommends that both the agency and Congress develop protocols for effective communications to foster “mutual understanding” and “build trust.” Such conversations have been “uneven” in the past, GAO wrote, and a comprehensive strategy could assist the office in becoming “more collaborative and partnerial.”

Beyond relations with Capitol Hill, the report details progress the office has made in strategic planning and adds that a focus on “effectiveness,” rather than its traditional emphasis on “activities and outputs, such as the number of cases processed and inspections conducted.”

GAO also recommended that the board set up performance agreements with and conduct periodic reviews of the executive director and the general counsel. Such moves would “put into place the management controls necessary for effective and efficient operations.”

GAO also noted the agency’s “limited resources” to carry out its mission. More specifically, the report cited the “very small number of OOC staff available to conduct [health and safety] inspections.” To help make the best use of its funds, GAO said the office is wise to engage the legislative branch agencies covered by the CAA and mentioned the office’s first-ever Organizational Health and Safety Program Conference, which will be held this month, as an example of such a “constructive approach.”

The 15-person office has about $2 million in expenditures for fiscal 2003. The agency’s budget was frozen during the last appropriations cycle.

“We are not there yet, but were are in the process of developing best practices in all areas of endeavor,” Thompson said. “We see the report as an initial phase in a continuing strategic partnership that will [provide] additional expert assistance to this office by GAO to better able us to serve the Capitol Hill community.”