Why isn’t the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights protecting Congress during the Pandemic?

Wouldn’t it be good to have an independent office that had the authority to impose a uniform set of mandatory safety and health standards across Capitol Hill? Such an office already exists and Congress is giving them a pass.

The Office of Congressional Workplace Rights (OCWR) is the independent, centralized workplace safety and health agency for the House, the Senate, and other Capitol Hill offices, including the Architect of the Capitol, Capitol Police, the Library of Congress, and even the Government Accountability Office. This office has strong enforcement powers. The OCWR also handles employment cases in a separate process.

Almost twenty-five years ago, this office, originally called the Office of Compliance, opened its doors. In 1997, the Office of Compliance Board of Directors, a panel of five private sector appointees, adopted regulations to implement the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, as required by law. Congress ignored them.

In the intervening years, this office has dropped the ball on pressing Congress to approve its OSH regulations. Now, there is a call for immediate action. The OCWR has the legal authority to develop standards for employees. Will it exercise its OSH authority to mandate enforceable standards?

Without regulations, the custodians and craftspeople, congressional staffers, and other essential workers are left without effective protection. One House member was reported to compel his staff to come to work without masks to show support for the Administration. The law requires OSH regulations, issued by the OCWR, because the federal OSHA rules don’t apply directly to the legislative branch. 

There is precedent for emergency standards to be imposed without advance congressional approval. For permanent standards to apply, Congress would need to approve OCWR-adopted regulations, but the OCWR must make the first move.

In the midst of a pandemic, one would think that the OCWR Board of Directors might take the initiative. Instead, it reflects the branch that created it. The OCWR is infected with congressional dysfunction.

Isn’t it time for congressional employees, Senators, or Representatives to demand action? Don’t hold your breath. And wear a mask!

Kevin Mulshine served as a Senior Advisor and Counsel to the Congressional Office of Compliance from 1995 to 1997. Subsequently, he served as Inspector General for the Architect of the Capitol. He is a cum laude graduate of the Howard University Law Center.