Making Congress Live by Its Laws

By Stephen Chapman Copyright Creators Syndicate Inc. | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), August 17, 1994 | Go to article overview

Making Congress Live by Its Laws


Stephen Chapman Copyright Creators Syndicate Inc., St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


In its approach to relations between employers and employees, Congress has generally upheld Mark Twain's view that "nothing so needs reforming as other people's habits." Our elected representatives have a tradition of spying a grave evil in the workplace, lamenting it with displays of outrage, enacting righteous legislation to banish it - and then carefully excluding themselves from the law.

When Congress approved the 1991 Civil Rights Act, which was billed as a vital new bulwark against job discrimination, the safeguards applied to just about everyone in America except those with the misfortune of toiling on Capitol Hill. Then-Sen. Warren Rudman, a New Hampshire Republican, insisted that this exemption was essential to keep the Senate from being prey "to the whims of a U.S. district-court judge who . . . would have the power to overrule the considered judgment of 100 members of this body."

It didn't bother him, however, that the same judge has the power to overrule the cjudgment of thousands of private employers, who may have better reasons and purer motives than the average senator. Nor did Rudman mind being at odds with James Madison, who confidently predicted in the Federalist papers that members of Congress would not pass oppressive measures because "they can make no law which will not have its full operation on themselves and their friends, as well as on the great mass of the society. This has always been deemed one of the strongest bonds by which human policy can connect the rulers and the people together."

A dozen or so laws passed in recent decades, however, have weakened that bond between ruler and ruled - not just the civil rights laws but the Americans with Disabilities Act, the minimum-wage laws, the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act and more. Some members think including Congress in these measures would endanger the constitutional separation of powers; others think compliance would cost too much; and some, it is safe to suspect, would just rather not be bothered.

But the custom has become more of an embarrassment all the time, fueling the anti-incumbent sentiment behind such phenomena as the term-limits movement. The embarrassment has grown to the point, in fact, that the culprits may be ready to end it. In a little-noticed break from health care and crime, the House of Representatives voted 427-4 last week to bring Congress under the coverage of a raft of federal laws governing the workplace. …

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