THEY call it ``the last plantation.'' It is a place where some 35,000 people toil unprotected by the great civil rights legislation of the '60s, a place where the boss's word can be tantamount to law, and a place where the guiding philosophy might be summed up as ``do as we say, not as we do.''
It is the United States Congress, a body that has imposed sweeping social and economic reforms on the rest of the country, but, in many cases, has left itself curiously exempt. The landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not apply to Congress. Neither do labor laws or occupational safety and health regulations. The ethics laws that have ensnarled several former executive branch officials do not affect lawmakers. Congressional facilities don't even have the fire sprinklers mandated by laws in every nonfederal office building in the country.
``Laws that are good enough for everybody else ought to be good enough for us,'' says Sen. John Glenn (D) of Ohio. ``It is the rankest form of hypocrisy.''
And it is a ``form of hypocrisy'' that is coming under increasing attack from those who have benefited from it. A recent series of well-publicized incidents has brought working conditions on Capitol Hill to national attention. Several members of the House and Senate are rushing in with legislation to make laws applying to the rest of the country apply to Congress. Even some red-faced senior members of Congress - heretofore the staunchest defenders of the old system - have begun to accept the idea that the practices of old will have to change.
``The old dons don't like it,'' says Rep. Lynn Martin (R) of Illinois, author of newly introduced legislation that would place congressional and judiciary employees under federal civil rights and employment laws. ``But there's been so much crud that the climate's different. You can just sense a sentiment for real change.''
That sentiment has intensified in the aftermath of an unusual episode that began earlier this month. The Washington Post printed a front-page article in which former aides to Rep. Roy Dyson (D) of Maryland described bizarre demands allegedly placed on male staff members by the congressman's chief assistant, Thomas Pappas. The former aides contended that Mr. Pappas's demands included ordering an aide to perform a striptease at an office retreat.
By the end of the day on which the story was published, Pappas was dead, having apparently leaped from the 24th floor of a New York hotel in desperation that the allegations had ruined his career. Two days later, Representative Dyson announced that he had known nothing of Pappas's employment practices and that, if he had, he would have put an immediate stop to them.
Although the accusations aimed at Dyson's office were unusual, many lawmakers and staff members alike agree that abuses - some of them serious - are common, and that the episode underscored the need for Congress to begin applying laws it had passed protecting the nation's workers to its own employees on and off Capitol Hill.
``That tragedy might not have happened if those people had a route to complain rather than going to the front page of the newspapers,'' Representative Martin says. But usually, dissatisfied employees suffer in silence. ``I can't tell you the number of people who have called me over the years to say, `I would love to do something about [a workplace problem] if I didn't have to make a national spectacle of myself,''' says Steven Hofman, a House Republican leadership aide.
Even before the Pappas episode, however, efforts to increase protections for congressional staff were under way. Last year, for example, lawmakers found themselves embroiled in an embarrassing political ruckus when cafeteria workers attempted to unionize, violating rules Congress had established for itself.
Earlier this year, press accounts reported allegations of ``sweatshop'' conditions in the House of Representatives' ``folding room,'' where members' newsletters to constituents are processed. Workers there complained of being forced to work 70-hour weeks without overtime pay. A House committee dispatched to investigate the complaints found that folding-room employees toiled in a dingy basement room with poor air circulation and they were exposed to noxious fumes.
In the wake of the folding-room revelations, shaken members of the House Education and Labor Committee unanimously approved an amendment to a bill raising the national minimum wage that would extend federal laws regulating hours and wages to congressional blue-collar workers.
Similarly, recent events have focused attention on congressional exemptions from the ethics laws of the 1970s. Former White House political adviser Lyn Nofziger was convicted and former presidential confidant Michael Deaver was indicted for violating the 1978 Ethics in Government Act by lobbying the Reagan administration within a year of leaving its employ. By comparison, former Rep. Jerry Patterson, a California Democrat who sat on the House Banking Committee, registered as a congressional lobbyist for a big California savings-and-loan institution less than six months after he was defeated in his 1984 reelection bid.
In the past, such discrepancies provoked little support for change. Last year, for instance, lawmakers defeated attempts to revise the special-prosecutor law to include themselves. But this year, legislation to extend the ethics law to cover members of Congress has cleared the Senate.
The Senate bill would impose the same one-year lobbying restrictions that apply to former executive branch officials on those who leave the legislative branch. That proposal has run into stiff opposition in the House - thanks, in part, to staff members who see their future careers hindered. But a slightly watered-down version is given a chance of passage in the House.
Defenders of congressional exemptions insist that there is a valid constitutional argument for the practice. Since it is the task of the executive branch to enforce laws, it is conceivable that the Justice Department could, say, use charges of job discrimination against lawmakers as a way to harass them for opposing administration policies. Moreover, members of Congress face some unusual pressures when hiring staff, often choosing their staffs from home districts or from among friends and relatives of key supporters.
Finally, some argue, the specter of public rejection is enough to keep most members in line. ``I don't know in all of American society of an institution as open to public inspection as the US Congress,'' says House Speaker Jim Wright (D) of Texas. ``That in itself should provide the ultimate, best protection.''
Such arguments frustrate supporters of the proposed reforms. ``A lot of people just don't see any point to them,'' says Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D) of Colorado, who first introduced her reform legislation, which would establish a panel to monitor House personnel practices, in 1976. ``I hope it will happen this time. But we tend to get a flurry of activity and then things just go pshshshshshsh.''
Nevertheless, some changes seem nearly certain, if only because the matter has become the source of public embarrassment. ``We have congressmen who discriminate against blacks, against whites, against Hispanics, against women,'' complains Sen. Alan Simpson (R) of Wyoming. By one study, only 61 of 2,500 senior policy staff members on the Senate are black; by another, only 18 of the 152 Senate aides earning more than $70,000 are women.
``[Members of Congress] will never tell you that,'' Senator Simpson insists. ``They do not have to.''
Next Friday: The new barons of Congress.