WASHINGTON -- The Republican majority in the House last night tackled a huge symbol of government gone wrong: Congress' practice of exempting itself from the discrimination and workplace laws it requires of almost every other business and family in America.
"The Congressional Accountability Act," passed 429-0 by the House, would apply all environmental, civil rights and other laws to the 35,000 people employed by Congress.
"We are stating unequivocally that we believe in practicing what we preach," said Rep. Clifford Stearns, R-Fla.
Although Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, the Democratic minority leader, dismissed it as a trivial matter yesterday, the self-exemption has been a sore spot of long standing for many Americans.
President Bush said that Congress was demonstrating that it was a "privileged class of rulers who stand above the law." Congressional scholar Norman Ornstein warned that "no subject now inflames the public more when it comes to Congress." Conservative columnist Tony Snow called it "Washington's slimiest scandal."
Over the years, the laws that Congress saw fit to impose on others, but not itself, included:
* The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which established minimum wage and overtime pay requirements.
* The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, gender or national origin.
* The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, which set up he Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and required vast safety and health standards for the workplace.
* The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, which guarantees Americans up to 12 weeks unpaid leave when they have a new child or must care for a sick child or parent.
In the process, Congress became an employer that OSHA inspectors couldn't levy fines against for having 10 electrical cords stuck in a single socket; one that required women who felt they were sexually harassed to complain to the institution that employed them; an employer that didn't sweat the construction costs required by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Two hundred years ago, the authors of the Federalist Papers warned that it was imperative that Congress live under the rules it passes -- so that it could feel their effect. The issue came to the fore in 1988 when it was revealed that employees of the House mail room had been forced to put in 70-hour work weeks without overtime pay.
Subsequently, the General Accounting Office found that workers congressional offices faced "serious hazards" to their health from various workplace code violations.
Soon, conservatives began to take up the cry. Their view was simple: If Congress has to live under its own requirements, perhaps it would pass fewer of them.
In 1992, the call for Congress to reform itself was taken up by everyone from Ross Perot to Rush Limbaugh. Then, last year, the bipartisan Joint Committee on the Reorganization of Congress met to decide what was needed to make Congress function more efficiently -- and regain its reputation.
"One of the few things everybody could agree on was this," said Richard H. Shapiro, executive director of the Congressional Management Foundation. "What they had been doing wasn't fair -- and they were getting hammered on it."
Last year, two of the members of that Joint Committee, Rep. Dick Swett, a New Hampshire Democrat, and Rep. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican, introduced legislation. For years Democratic leaders, such as Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell of Maine, had insisted that the doctrine of separation of powers precluded executive branch inspectors from overseeing Congress.
But Mr. Swett and Mr. Shays simply fashioned a bill that put that compliance in Congress' hands. Mr. Swett, who listened to enough talk radio to know that Democratic incumbents were in trouble, warned his colleagues that this issue was a no-brainer. They heeded his advice -- the bill passed the House 427-4 -- but it was too late to help Mr. Swett: He was one of the Democrats who lost Nov. 8.
The bill didn't pass the Senate anyway, a casualty of Senator Mitchell's ambivalence and the Republicans' determination to bottle up Democratic bills.
Now Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas said he couldn't wait to tackle the measure: "We're going to start with congressional coverage that says, in effect, we're going to apply all these federal laws to the Congress that we apply to businesses all across America."
But even those who favored the measure had a question that few paused to ask in the 104th Congress' haste to get off and running: What's this going to cost?
"I notice they are working late tonight," noted Mr. Shapiro, his tongue about halfway in cheek. "If you apply this strictly, are they going to pay all those congressional aides time and half? It could cost the taxpayers millions of dollars."