Congress got three things right in passing the Congressional Accountability Act

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Debate about how to fix the Congressional Accountability Act (P.L. 104-1) is all the rage these days. Still, Congress got at least three things right when it passed the CAA 23 years ago.

  1. Before the CAA, no law protected congressional staffers from mistreatment on the job. There were, literally, no worker protection laws for Capitol Hill staffers. (Staffers abused and mistreated by Senators or Representatives had limited protections under the United States Constitution, but those were nowhere near the protections that private sector employees enjoyed under equal employment laws from which Congress exempted itself.) The Accountability Act gave congressional employees a statutory remedy for unlawful discrimination, pay abuses, reprisal, and workplace safety violations. It also established a process (albeit a flawed one) for victims to file claims and have them litigated and heard in open court, if they wanted. The law also authorizes attorneys’ fees for winning employees under circumstances similar to what private sector employees can obtain.
  2. Before the CAA, Congress was not required to follow safety and health regulations in its buildings. The Accountability Act requires safety inspections once every two years of all Capitol Hill offices and workspaces. These inspections and union complaints have forced safety repairs in Capitol Hill workplaces. Congress, embarrassed by safety lapses discovered in these inspections, appropriated millions of dollars to remedy safety violations. The Capitol building and other monumental buildings are much safer today than before the passage of the CAA.
  3. Before the CAA, congressional employees, even the rank and file at the large congressional agencies like the Capitol Architect and the Capitol Police, had no rights to organize a union. By 1997, employees selected unions to represent and advocate for them. Beginning in 1997, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), representing Architect laborers and custodial workers, moved quickly to complain about the hazards in the Capitol and related buildings. Under the new law, the Architect had to listen to the union that spoke on behalf of these hard-working employees. The law gives employees strong protections against unfair labor practices, with a general counsel who has power to prosecute employing offices for unlawful practices or anti-union actions.

Ending the Capitol Hill legal “wilderness” as it existed in 1995 was the right for Congress then and gave staffers valuable protections and remedies for violations.

Clearly, the law needs improvement. Protecting staffers from unlawful harassment and retaliation is a first step. The law nevertheless benefited staffers and others with little attention for much of its 22-year life, even with a Congress resistant to revisiting how members treat their employees.

Kevin Mulshine, the former Inspector General for the Architect of the Capitol (AOC), served as the Deputy General Counsel for the AOC. Prior to joining the AOC, he was Senior Advisor and Counsel to the Congressional Office of Compliance from 1995 to 1997 . He is a cum laude graduate of the Howard University Law Center.