Thursday, an arm of the legislative branch will release its annual report, but many on the Hill will not recognize the agency's name. Given its small size and relative obscurity, few would consider the Office of Compliance formidable--except that it is the first stop for congressional staffers filing harassment and discrimination charges against their employers.
Last year's report revealed 24 claims filed from House and Senate offices and $246,271 awarded in settlements paid for by the Treasury. Incidence of discrimination and harassment is likely much higher, according to labor lawyers and disability advocates, but budget constraints keep OOC from making itself widely known and accessible.
With just 22 employees and a $3.8 million budget, OOC must provide counseling, processing, and confidential mediation for any employee of a member of Congress or six other legislative-branch agencies. It must also identify safety hazards and building violations in every congressional building; inspect the 18 million square feet comprising the Capitol campus for violations of the Americans with Disability Act; and identify every area where Congress has failed to uphold the Congressional Accountability Act.
The Congressional Accountability Act, passed in 1995, established OOC and theoretically makes the same workplace laws followed by the private sector and federal agencies applicable to Congress.
But according to lawyer Debra Katz, who has represented a number of congressional employees filing harassment charges, OOC inadvertently protects the harassers from facing retribution.
"Congress was basically embarrassed into passing the Congressional Accountability Act because [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] laws pertain to everyone else, and they had no laws to protect their own employees," Katz said. "But the law created OOC so that, in some measure, it provides another layer of protection for members because it requires employees to go through an added step of mediation before they can file a charge."
CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this post incorrectly stated the day the annual report is being released. It is to be released on Thursday.
A version of this article appeared in National Journal Daily. Subscribers can read more here.