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.

A Brief Recent History of Unionization in Congress

Working conditions for Congressional staff have recently been prominent in the news. News stories recount staff shamed by their offices for wanting to wear masks in the face of COVID-19 or being unnecessarily forced into their offices. Congressional staff are also significantly underpaid compared to their Executive branch (or historical) counterparts; their health insurance has been used as a political football; and they have less recourse when they’re subject to harassment or other mistreatment in the workplace.

The traditional response by staff to difficult working conditions is to unionize. But can Congressional staff unionize like their Executive branch counterparts? Continue reading “A Brief Recent History of Unionization in Congress”

The Recap: Library of Congress Virtual Public Forum

On September 10, 2020, the Library of Congress held a Virtual Public Forum on the Library’s role in providing access to legislative information. The forum was held at the direction of the House Committee on Appropriations pursuant to its report accompanying the FY 2020 Legislative Branch Appropriations Bill. Per the legislative language, there will be another forum scheduled prior to October 2021. There was widespread interest in the topic: according to the Library, several hundred people registered for the event. 

Prior to the forum, the Congressional Data Coalition and others sent a report containing more than two dozen recommendations concerning the Library of Congress’ legislative information services. They fell into five conceptual groupings: (1) Publish Information As Data; (2) Put the Legislative Process in Context; (3) Integrate Information from Multiple Sources; (4) Publish Archival Information; (5) Collaborate with the Public. 

The following provides a recap of the three-hour proceedings. The Library indicated it will post video snippets of the conversation.

Continue reading “The Recap: Library of Congress Virtual Public Forum”

The Constitution Annotated in 2020

For the first time since 2009, I don’t have to write a blogpost or letter calling on the Library of Congress to make its legal treatise, the Constitution Annotated, available online in a usable format. Last year, the Library finally published that document online as HTML. For those unfamiliar, the Constitution Annotated is a legal treatise, prepared by the Congressional Research Service, that explains the U.S. Constitution as it has been interpreted by the Supreme Court. Continue reading “The Constitution Annotated in 2020”

Congress’ Power of the Purse

Congress holds the power of the purse. That is, they decide where to spend federal money. The Constitution expressly provides that “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.” The process is convoluted, opaque, and subject to exceptions and personalities. The purpose of this article is to provide the big picture, show the immense importance of these decisions, and the impact on the Legislative Branch.

Congress controls a massive amount of money. For Fiscal Year 2020 (October 1, 2019 to September 30, 2020), the budget is about $4.7 Trillion. $2.8 Trillion is mandatory spending (legally required, like Social Security payments). $1.4 Trillion is discretionary spending (Congress can spend the money on anything). About $500 Billion is interest on the national debt. And, of course, there’s emergency spending, like the recently enacted Coronavirus legislation totaling trillions of dollars (with more to come). 

Continue reading “Congress’ Power of the Purse”

Capitol Police Release 2019 Complaints Data With Significant Omissions That Reduce Clarity

The U.S. Capitol Police is notoriously opaque; among the limited information they will provide to the public are summary statistics on employee misconduct, published in their Annual Statistical Summary Report. This report provides a high level summary of the number of complaints made against USCP employees.

We requested a copy of the 2019 data in June, and it arrived in August, which is par for the course with USCP. Here is what the statistics show: 

  1. There were 228 complaints filed against USCP employees in 2019, of which nearly 140 charges were sustained.
  1. More than 80% of complaints were filed by department employees; by comparison 14%  were citizen submissions, and 3% were filed by outside law enforcement.
  1. There have been zero anonymous complaints filed in 2019, and the same was true in 2018. This suggests a problem with the way the anonymous complaints process works.
Continue reading “Capitol Police Release 2019 Complaints Data With Significant Omissions That Reduce Clarity”

House CJS Appropriations Report Calls for Greater Transparency of Office of Legal Counsel Opinions

The Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) serves as legal advisor to the president and executive branch agencies. OLC issues legal opinions and often acts as the final authority on how laws are to be interpreted. 

However, these legal opinions and how they are analyzed are often withheld from Congress and the public. In fact, the few OLC opinions that have become publicly available often reveal that they undermine federal legislation and reinterpret the Constitution to expand executive branch power. 

When opinions are kept secret, there is no way to know what opinions exist and Congress is unable to determine how the executive branch is interpreting the law, creating an imbalance of power between the branches. In sum, there’s no space for secret law, and OLC opinions can be a gateway to lawlessness.

Congress has struggled to access OLC opinions, and for years civil society has been pushing to make these reports available. However, there are avenues that Congress can take to bring much needed transparency and accountability to OLC opinions. 

Continue reading “House CJS Appropriations Report Calls for Greater Transparency of Office of Legal Counsel Opinions”

The Complete Guide to What We Know (And Don’t Know) About the U.S. Capitol Police

The U.S. Capitol Police (USCP) has a critical mission of protecting Congress — Members, employees, and visitors — so constitutionally mandated business can be carried out in a safe and open environment. USCP has a massive $464 million budget for FY 2020 and 2,514 employees, of whom 2,060 are sworn personnel. By comparison, the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) is funded at $556 million and has 3,851 sworn officers.

Unlike the vast majority of local police forces, the USCP provides little public information about its activities. The Capitol Police is part of the Legislative Branch, which means it’s under no obligation to answer records requests and is not subject to Freedom of Information of law. Additionally, the department does not publish annual reports on its activities; does not publish reports from its oversight body, the Capitol Police Board, nor the USCP Inspector General; does not proactively publish its annual statistical summary of complaints drawn from Office of Professional Responsibility records; and only began in December 2018 publishing sparse information concerning its weekly arrests.

To help illuminate the operations and disclosures from the agency, our team has spent significant time over the past several years gathering information, including statements of disbursements, jurisdiction and responsibilities, and arrest report data. We also have written letters to the department requesting further information disclosures and submitted testimony to the Leg. Branch Subcommittee requesting heightened transparency regarding USCP arrest information, press releases, and announcements. 

Continue reading “The Complete Guide to What We Know (And Don’t Know) About the U.S. Capitol Police”

Appropriations Cheat Sheet: Reforms To Include In 2021 Spending Bills

The 2021 appropriations process is ramping up with markups scheduled over next month and just a few months left before the end of the fiscal year. Appropriations bills can be a vehicle for institutional reform; we would like to elevate a few modernization ideas from a number of civil society organizations that lawmakers may wish to consider. (All of our recommendations are available online.)

Continue reading “Appropriations Cheat Sheet: Reforms To Include In 2021 Spending Bills”