Taxpayers Footing Bill for Congressional Employee Settlements

Congressional employees who have been harassed or discriminated against have been paid nearly $1 million in settlements per year according Politico, citing records from the Office of Compliance, a Congressional agency charged with enforcing the workplace rights of employees.

The OOC paid out over $800,000 in settlements both in fiscal years 2008 and 2009 on complaints resolved through its dispute resolution program. An OOC report to Congress revealed that 25 cases settled in fiscal year 2007 resulted in monetary awards totaling over $4 million.

Unlike complaints filed in Federal court, those filed with the OOC are confidential and the settlement process is kept secret. The process works in favor of accused members of Congress, keeping scandals out of the public eye while leaving taxpayers responsible for cash payoffs negotiated in mediation. Complaints are not made public unless a final decision is made in favor of the employee.

The most common complaints filed with the OOC relate to “discrimination and/or harassment” according to an OOC report released Tuesday. Employees must go through confidential counseling and mediation before filing a formal administrative complaint with the office. In fiscal year 2009, there were 72 new requests for mediation and 108 requests for counseling.

Despite millions having been paid out in monetary settlements over 14 years, congressional employees are unlikely to know what the OOC does. Tuesday’s report highlights the results of an OOC survey which found that employees had limited knowledge of their rights and services offered by the office.

A communication gap may be partially responsible for the low levels of awareness. The OOC has been trying for years to obtain survey responses and was blocked from accessing lists of congressional e-mail addresses, obtaining responses from only 892 of the Hill’s 30,000 employees. A spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R.-Ohio) told Politico that Nancy Pelosi’s (D.-Calif.) former Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard was to blame for the block. Beard recently resigned after an internal report disclosed by Roll Call found, among other things, that communication between staff and management was inadequate.

The fact that most Capitol Hill staffers know little about the OOC’s purpose may shed light on why complaints of former Representative Eric Massa’s (D.-N.Y.) alleged behavior went undisclosed for years. Allegations that prompted Massa’s resignation this year date back to 2006. Massa’s resignation prompted House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D.- Md) to write a letter to the OOC requesting that procedures for reporting harassment be reviewed.

A sexual harassment complaint against Massa was filed by his former chief of staff Joe Racalto in March. Due to the confidential manner in which cases are handled by the OOC, it is unlikely that potential monetary settlements offered to Racalto or other Massa aides would be made public. Settlements are paid out through an account in the Treasury department established by the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act which extended employment and labor laws to the legislative branch.
Although staffers have limited knowledge of OOC services, reports suggest that unionized congressional employees need no reminder of their rights. Employees of the Office of the Architect of the Capitol and Capitol Police force regularly file a greater number of complaints than congressional staffers. A sharp rise in complaints in 2001 was blamed by the office’s director on an uptick in union-sponsored complaints.
The latest revelations about the high costs of taxpayer-funded settlements for employee complaints come at a time when Congress faces record-low approval ratings. Such frustration is similar to the public sentiment during the period prior to the passage of the act that created the OOC. It took two years for an unwilling Congress to pass the 1995 CAA, preferring to remain exempted from laws that had already been applied to the federal government and private businesses.
Though it is unclear whether the OOC settlement payments will become a political issue as the November elections draw near, it is worth noting that the last time Congress refused to reform itself, Republicans took control of both the House and Senate.