Should Congress abide by the same civil rights and labor laws it imposes on the rest of the nation? This week, a House subcommittee will begin debate on Congress's longstanding policy of exempting itself from compliance with statutes prohibiting employment discrimination for reasons of race, sex, national origin, or religion.
The House administration subcommittee on personnel and police is scheduled to hear testimony Wednesday on pending bills that would eliminate congressional exemptions from civil rights laws and establish grievance procedures for employees on Capitol Hill who believe they have been discriminated against.
``Congressional employees need some kind of commitment that their rights will be adhered to,'' says Larry Irving, a congressional aide who heads an ad hoc group in the House aimed at mediating employment disputes.
Mr. Irving notes that while there are more women and minorities working on Capitol Hill today than in the past, they are not yet represented in equitable numbers.
``There are still real problems,'' he says of employment discrimination in Congress.
The last major study of the issue was completed by the United States Commission on Civil Rights in 1980. That study said in part, ``Assessments of congressional employment patterns by race and sex in the legislative branch strongly suggest that employment discrimination is a serious problem on Capitol Hill.''
The commission recommended at that time that Congress end its exemption to US antidiscrimination laws and set up a special agency in Congress, headed by a presidential appointee, to enforce federal discrimination laws on Capitol Hill.
Both the House and Senate have continued instead to rely on their own adopted ``rules of conduct,'' which forbid discrimination. Such rules, however, do not carry the force of law.
Congress has exempted itself from 10 different civil rights and federal regulatory laws.
This policy of exemption has not been motivated by a desire to discriminate against prospective employees. Instead, it stems from the constitutional mandate that a ``separation of powers'' be maintained between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of federal government.
Under the US system of government, Congress is accountable only to itself -- and ultimately to American voters. If Congress were subject to compliance with civil rights and labor laws, it could mean that the legislative branch would come under authority of executive branch agencies such as the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Such interference in the workings of Congress would, in the view of many experts, be unconstitutional, because it would threaten the independence of the legislative body.
Apart from the constitutional problems, some members of Congress are reluctant to be covered by antidiscrimination laws, because they fear such laws might be used against them for political purposes. Some members feel that because of the need to hire loyal aides who are in ideological agreement on detailed issues, senators and congressmen need more latitude in deciding who to hire for staff or committee positions.
Not all members feel this way. In the House, a group of congressmen have established a Fair Employment Practices Office. The office, headed by Irving, provides disgruntled employees or applicants a mechanism to mediate their grievances. Approximately 130 members of Congress have voluntarily joined the group, but like the code of conduct, it, too, lacks the force of law. In addition, it is only available to the employees of the 130 members of the House who have signed an agreement not to discriminate.
Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D) of Colorado has introduced a bill that would effectively expand the services of the Fair Employment Practices Office to include the entire House.
She maintains that passage of her bill would not involve constitutional questions, and that the measure would give all House employees a means of resolving employment and hiring disputes.
Rep. Don Edwards (D) of California is calling for a more sweeping measure that would bring all congressional workers under the full authority of federal civil rights laws.
The other pending proposal has been made by Rep. Lynn Martin (R) of Illinois. Representative Martin advocates the establishment of a special employment review board made up of senior federal judges. Under her plan, the board would hear and resolve grievances by both congressional and judicial employees.