After 200 years of exempting itself from the rules that it imposes on others, Congress is edging toward including its own thousands of employees under federal civil rights and labor laws.
That's encouraging news, but it would be more meaningful if the pace of change were less snail-like.Congress exempts itself as an employer from the Civil Rights Act, the Equal Employment Opportunity Act, the Civil Service Reform Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Equal Pay Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and the Rehabilitation Act.
As a result, congressional staff members and other workers on Capitol Hill can be discriminated against in all manner of ways, harassed and subjected to various indignities. Women and minorities can be - and are - refused jobs, promotions, and equal pay.
Last fall, the House of Representatives finally adopted rules prohibiting members from discriminating against their employees on the basis of race, religion, sex, age, physical handicap, or national origin. A complex system was established to handle employee complaints, but it has yet to be tested.
The Senate has not adopted similar rules, but some senators are pushing plans to hire more blacks in staff positions. Among 2,400 staff jobs in the Senate, only 57 are held by blacks. Some senators intend to hold hearings on hiring and promotion of blacks and women in congressional staff jobs.
Such stirrings are an improvement but hardly constitute vigorous reform. There is a much easier answer - one offered as legislation by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., each year for the past six years.
Leahy's bill would simply force Congress to abide by the same anti-discrimination and worker protection laws that it imposes on others. That would be the best approach and would eliminate a lot of game-playing.
Unfortunately, Leahy's bill is not expected to get anywhere once more. In the meantime, watch Congress try to make itself look better by tinkering with some kind of reform that falls short of what it should be.