ONE day last spring, federal safety inspectors descended on a place they normally are forbidden to go: the Congress of the United States.
By special invitation, inspectors poked through the offices of Rep. John Boehner (R) of Ohio. They found torn carpets ("trip hazards"), overloaded electrical outlets, improper lighting, and file cabinets that could easily tip over. They also detected indoor air pollution from copying machine fumes.
If Representative Boehner were a private businessman, he could have been fined $1,500. But Boehner, like other congressmen, is exempt from the safety rules, as well as many of the other laws that Washington imposes on most Americans.
Some legislators, including Boehner, would like to change that. They want federal laws governing civil rights, safety, minimum wage, and privacy applied even in the hallowed halls of Capitol Hill.
As Boehner explained: "I called for these inspections to illustrate two points. One, to demonstrate that many of the rules and standards [that the government] imposes on the private sector are nothing more than a regulatory nightmare.... And two, the hypocrisy of a Congress which forces these regulations and standards on the productive sector of our economy and yet exempt themselves from these very same rules..."
One of these days, Boehner may get his wish. The Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress is exploring ideas to reform the Senate and the House of Representatives. They are hearing many requests from their fellow members to bring Congress under laws which they can now ignore.
The issue isn't as simple as it appears. The Founding Fathers were aware that a power-hungry president might someday harass, intimidate, or even arrest members of Congress for political reasons. British monarchs, like the Stuarts, had used such tactics against the House of Commons.
In Article I, Section 6, the authors of the Constitution stated that senators and representatives "shall, in all cases, except treason, felony, and breach of the peace, be privileged from arrest..."
Thomas Mann, a Brookings Institution scholar, says the separation of powers between Congress and the White House must be protected. Mr. Mann says if government bureaucrats are permitted to harass senators for violating safety laws, for example, there could be "an abuse of power." Even so, Mann says exemptions from the law have "gone too far," and have damaged the reputation of Congress.
James Thurber, a political scientist at American University, suggests the critical question is: How do you enforce the laws on Congress? Even though there might be enforcement problems, Professor Thurber says Congress must begin to obey its own statutes.
Early American statesmen considered this a vital point. In The Federalist Papers, the historic series of 85 essays written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, No. 57 warns that if representatives exempt themselves from their own laws, "government degenerates into tyranny."
A study by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) notes that Congress has gradually brought itself under some statutes, particularly those involving labor and employment. But the list of laws that either the House or the Senate may ignore is lengthy. A tally of those laws compiled by CRS, but which CRS cautions may be incomplete, includes: The Civil Rights Act of 1964; Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972; Equal Pay Act; Fair Labor Standards Act; National Labor Relations Act; Occupational Safety an d Health Act; Social Security Act; Freedom of Information Act; Privacy Act of 1974; Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967; Title IX of the Higher Education Act Amendments of 1972; Rehabilitation Act of 1973; Age Discrimination Act of 1975; Ethics in Government Act of 1978; Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1988; Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
Rep. Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut says Congress's exemption from so many laws puts it out of touch.
"By exempting ourselves from laws, we are depriving members of the opportunity to experience firsthand the effects of the legislation we adopt," he says.
Representatives Shays draws a comparison between congressmen and executives at General Motors, America's largest corporation. Ross Perot, who once served on GM's board, tried to halt the practice of "allowing high-level executives to trade in their company car for a new one any time there was a problem," Shays says. Mr. Perot wanted executives to "take their car to the local dealership to have it repaired...to see firsthand what its customers were thinking, feeling, and experiencing."
Without similar hands-on experience, Congress can't appreciate the frustrations of ordinary Americans, who must deal with thousands of annoying, costly regulations and laws, many members agree.
Mann, who is conducting a two-year study of congressional reform, says the "separation of powers" problem can be solved.
He recommends a new, independent agency within Congress to insure that lawmakers apply to themselves "comparable rules and penalties for laws [they write] for others."
Does that mean legislators could even be fined like ordinary Americans - for example, for discriminating against women or minorities? Perhaps that might be appropriate, says Thurber, who adds: "There has always been bias on the Hill.... Discrimination is so bad, based on race and gender, it has to be corrected in some way."
Critics, and some members of Congress, would strongly agree.