Washington — One of the ironies of the United States legal system is that the people who make the laws of the land are exempt from some of them. It is an irony that is getting increasing attention, thanks in part to Lyn Nofziger, who was convicted last week of lobbying the White House in violation of the Ethics in Government Act. ``It's a lousy law,'' said Mr. Nofziger after his conviction. ``It's a law that doesn't apply to the Congress of the United States. ... All men are not equal under that law.''
This week Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina is introducing a bill to force ex-legislators to wait a period of time before lobbying in the Capitol. The House may consider two similar bills in coming months.
Under present conditions, many ex-congressmen barely leave office before they begin lobbying their former colleagues for various clients. For example, weeks after Rep. Don Fuqua (D) of Florida left office in 1986, he began knocking on doors in behalf of the Aerospace Industries Association of America Inc. He knew which doors to knock, since he had served as chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee and advisory member of the National Commission on Space.
The law governing lobbying is not an exception to the rule. From privacy and employment discrimination to work place safety and lobbying, Congress has exempted itself from laws that others have to follow.
There have been sporadic attempts to put Congress under the same rules as the rest of the country. As most of those have failed, the lawmakers have set up some voluntary standards to police themselves. Now, with the publicity over the Nofzinger and Michael Deaver cases, it looks as if Congress may strip itself of a few exemptions.
``We should be covered,'' says Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts, who chairs the House Subcommittee on Administrative Law and Government Relations. ``The reasons that apply to other people also apply to us.''
Opponents of change point out that the decisions of the 535 legislators on Capitol Hill are, unlike those made by agencies and the White House, made in public vote. But the momentum to change the law is growing, Mr. Frank says.
When it comes to the mass of other laws affecting the White House and private sector, however, there is more controversy than momentum for change.
The conflict of interest laws provide an example. A special prosecutor is looking into whether Attorney General Edwin Meese III violated such laws by owning stock in regional telephone companies when he was considering restrictions on the companies. Another special prosecutor considered, but chose not to investigate, whether Supreme Court nominee Douglas Ginsburg violated laws because he owned stock in a cable TV company when he ruled, as a federal appellate judge, on a related case.
A legislator, however, can own stock in any company, even if he or she serves on a committee that directly affects the company's stock. For example, Sen. John Glenn (D) of Ohio owned more than $500,000 worth of stock in companies that supplied goods and services to the Defense Department according to his own filings. Senator Glenn served on the Armed Services Committee.
Many argue that legislators could not hold any stock if the conflict of interest laws applied to them, since they theoretically touch on just about every business activity in the country. Still, many put their assets in blind trusts.
Legislators don't have to disclose information under the Freedom of Information Act the way the federal government does. For example, a group recently obtained documents detailing how the Federal Bureau of Investigation had monitored their movements for several years. The FBI was forced to release the information, which damaged its reputation.
If someone wanted to find the results of a congressional investigation, however, he would have little leverage but his own power of persuasion.
``There is an attempt to set up a self-enforcing mechanism,'' says Morgan Frankel of the Office of Senate Legal Counsel. ``But, unlike the Freedom of Information Act, you can't go to court and file a lawsuit if you don't like the way the mechanism is applied.''
In addition, legislators can say anything they want about people - as long as the statements are made on the floor of the Senate or House, or in the process of working on a piece of legislation. For example, a senator recently called media mogul Rupert Murdoch a ``dirt-bag publisher.'' That might have garnered a libel suit against someone else, but the senator was immune. (This rule was not enacted by Congress; it is in the Constitution.)
The most controversial exemptions have to do with labor laws. Congress is exempt from the Civil Rights Act (which bans discrimination), the Equal Employment Opportunities Act, the Equal Pay Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act (working conditions), and the Fair Labor Standards Act (minimum wage, overtime pay, child labor), among other things.
There is a ``philosophical, constitutional rationale'' for exempting Congress from such regulations, says a staff aide of the House Subcommittee on Administrative Law. ``Enforcement is done through the executive branch, and that could lead to executive branch harassment,'' she says.
As recently as the mid-70s, some congressional offices specified the race, color and religious background of employees. Today, both the House and the Senate have set up guidelines to prevent discrimination, and are policing themselves more vigilantly, congressional aides say.
Others, however, say there are dramatic lapses. One is cited by James Glassman, editor inchief of Roll Call, a newspaper covering Capitol Hill. He says Capitol mail room employees have, since mid-January, been working 70-hour weeks without overtime pay.