Minding Manners on Capitol Hill
O'Meara, Kelly, Insight on the News
Congress seems to be a more civilized workplace these days, as evidenced by fewer harassment cases and, thanks to the 1995 legislation, greater privacy protection.
America can sleep soundly, happy in the knowledge that at least one branch of government is on its best behavior and playing nicely with others. With just weeks left in 1998, fewer discrimination claims have been filed against members of Congress, their staffs and the independent offices that support them than in any previous year.
Lawmakers can bring the 105th Congress to an end, comforted that only 50 claims have been filed against them this year with the Office of Compliance, the legislative equivalent of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC. Fortunately for the few against whom claims have been filed, the folks back home will never know who has been accused of what. Unlike the executive branch and private sector, where employees are free to discuss claims they file against their employer, Congress exempted itself from having to make public any identifying information about such claims. Under the Congressional Accountability Act, or CAA, workers are prohibited from discussing their claims at any point of the in-house process. In addition, employees only are free to talk about it if no settlement is reached in-house and they go on to pursue the claim in federal court.
The argument is that both sides are protected from embarrassment associated with claims.
Lawmakers made the CAA a priority of the GOP "Contract With America" passing it into law within weeks of the 1995 swearing of the new Republican-led Congress to try to make legislators subject to some of the same kind of regulation to which they had subjected business.
Congress may take great comfort in knowing that claims of workplace harassment and discrimination are down, without specific information about which members or staffers have been named in a discrimination claim, and what charges of discrimination have been alleged. However, it's impossible to know if members and staffers have committed minor infractions or serious misbehavior of the sort that even President Clinton regards as "inappropriate."
In 1997, 152 requests were filed for counseling, the first step in the dispute-resolution process. In 1996, the first full year of the Office of Compliance, only 95 such requests were filed. During the three-year period, Office of Compliance reports reveal that 62 claims involved the House (member, nonmember or committee offices) and 21 involved the Senate (senator, nonsenator or committee offices). Of the 247 claims filed for counseling between January 1996 and December 1997, those falling under the category of harassment represent a relatively small number. Only 39 claims involved some form of harassment, which could include abusive remarks and language, undesirable assignments and even unwanted physical contact. While the majority of claims are settled amicably in-house, by the end of 1997 some 19 cases had not been resolved either by counseling or mediation and had moved to the next and last step in the process.
Employees unable to reach an amicable resolution during the counseling and mediation stages are entitled to file a formal complaint with the Office of Compliance or they may file a civil lawsuit in federal district court. If employees choose to pursue a formal complaint, the executive director of the Office of Compliance appoints an independent-hearing officer to conduct a hearing. At this point, if a resolution still isn't agreed upon, employees are free to file in federal district court, which is the first time the claim may be made public.
While many of those who have been through the process have rave reviews for the staff who conduct the inquiries, both the accuser and accused find the process uncomfortable. "The entire process was handled really well," a complainant tells Insight, adding that the Office of Compliance listened and advised him of his rights. …