Congressmen Call for End to Special Exemptions Reformers Say Congress Should Have to Live by the Laws It Passes

Article excerpt

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. …