One of the closest things to a sweatshop these days is the folding room of the U.S. House of Representatives.

If that sounds like an exaggeration, consider how Scripps Howard News Service recently described the operations of the folding room: "Workers in the dingy, dusty, noisy, unventilated basement quarters often work up to 70 hours a week without time-and-a-half overtime pay. They have to sign out to go to the restroom."Congress doesn't have to pay overtime rates because it is exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act that applies to other branches of government and the private sector. Likewise, Congress doesn't have to worry about health hazards in the folding room because it is exempt from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards that apply to other employers.

The House folding room, which employs mostly blacks, has received a lot of media attention lately because it's hard to miss all the activity there in this election year. The operation, as Scripps Howard notes, is going full tilt to get out news releases, newsletters, and other mailings from members of Congress. Anyone walking the corridors near the folding room has to be careful not to stumble over boxes of mail waiting to be carted to the post office.

The purpose of all this mail is to tell constituents what a great job their lawmakers are doing in Washington. It doesn't, of course, mention the working conditions of the employees who print, fold, and insert the propaganda in envelopes. Nor does it ever mention all the labor, health, civil rights, and ethics laws from which Congress has exempted itself.

No congressman, for example, could ever be brought to court under the Ethics in Government Act under which former White House aide Lyn Nofziger was recently convicted; Congress exempted itself from that law. It's all right for members of Congress to routinely accept $2,000 speaking fees from lobby groups but, as former assistant attorney general William Weld said, it would be "a lay-down criminal case" if someone in the executive branch did that.

Laws that prevent other employers from discriminating against persons on the basis of race, sex, religion, handicap, age and national origin don't apply to Congress. The lawmakers also have exempted themselves from the Freedom of Information Act. And so goes Congress as it applies one set of rules to itself, and an entirely different set to the rest of the country.

Capitol Hill is sometimes called the "last plantation." It's an apt description, as employees of the House folding room can attest. If descriptions of what goes on in the folding room doesn't shame Congress into abandoning its double standard, it's hard to imagine what else will.