Human Rights on the Hill
Congress makes laws that pertain to the civil rights, fair pay, labor practices and safety of American workers. The laws apply to all employers--except Congress. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), knowing that the odds are against him, wants to change that double standard. He has once again introduced the Fair Employment in Congress Act. It simply eliminates the congressional exemption from a variety of laws Congress has passed, and Leahy hopes it will at least be debated this year.
Congress needs to take this step not only to give the people who work on Capitol Hill the same protections afforded other workers but also to try to restore confidence in the legislative branch of government. “This double standard is a plain injustice to those who make our work possible,” Leahy says. “It is an embarrassment to us all.”
It should be a particular embarrassment to those who voted last month to override President Reagan’s veto of major civil-rights legislation. Those senators and representatives should stand with Leahy to remove the exemptions from the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972. Congress has also left itself out of the Civil Service Reform Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Equal Pay Act.
For example, Leahy points out, if his bill were passed, workers who fold all those letters that members send to constituents could then get the overtime pay they deserve; women who do not always receive equal pay for equal work would have standing to take legal action.
Members of Congress argue that they have a unique relationship with their staffs and should be unfettered in the process of selecting confidential advisers. But one can select a secretary, legislative assistant or committee staff member without indulging in discrimination. Even if few members of Congress overtly discriminate, the appearance that they may be doing so will remain unless the law is changed. Leahy acknowledges that the special nature of the legislative process may require some changes in his bill, but he wants to get Congress on the road to protecting Capitol Hill workers.
But it’s a road not many in Congress seem anxious to travel. Leahy, who first introduced this bill 10 years ago, recalls the stirring speech he gave then. As he finished, a senior member approached him and asked him where he was going. “I said I was hurrying to catch a plane to Vermont, and he said, ‘Good. Stay there.’ ” Attitudes have changed in Congress since then but probably not enough. Leahy should keep trying.