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Monday, May 1, 1995

Rolling Back the Imperial Congress

Why Isn't Capitol Hill Subject to Its Own Rules and Regulations?

Ralph R. Reiland is Associate Professor of Economics at Robert Morris College and coowner of Amel’s Restaurant in Pittsburgh.

A top priority in the new Congress was to approve legislation that requires members of Congress to obey the same laws that they pass for the rest of us. No longer will the private sector be mandated to build wheelchair ramps while the disabled are told to forget about easy access to the Imperial Congress.

That’s a revolutionary concept to the old guard on Capitol Hill. A few years ago, a former Senate Democratic leader stated: “It’s been said here many times tonight that we want to treat Senators the same as everyone else, that we want to have the Senate treated the same as the private sector. Not a single Senator believes that. Not a single Senator wants that.”

The senator was arguing that the hiring and firing decisions in a senator’s office should be exempt from civil rights laws. The EEOC wouldn’t be playing any quota games with victim groups in his office. Another senator put it more bluntly: “The Senate is no lumber yard.”

Those senators are gone now. They didn’t understand that most of us value the houses we get from lumber yards more than we value the meddlesome laws and red tape we get from Congress. The senators didn’t understand why the public ranks Washington politicians below any other occupational category, including lumber workers. At least the guys carrying plywood buy their own stamps and don’t confiscate part of our paychecks by voting themselves midnight pay raises.

The call to exempt the Senate from civil rights legislation wasn’t unique. Congress has exempted itself from the most far-reaching and important pieces of modern legislation: the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Freedom of Information Act of 1966, the Age Discrimination Act of 1967, the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972, Title 9 of the Higher Education Act of 1972, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Privacy Act of 1974, the Age Discrimination Act amendments of 1975, the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, and the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1988.

With the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa offered an amendment that said simply that the ADA would apply to the Senate. Sam Gerdano, senior counsel to Grassley at the time, reported that he and the senator were besieged by Capitol Hill lawmakers who were worried that they might be sued for discrimination under the bill. The amendment was defeated. The Lords of the Hill who created the world’s worst litigation explosion didn’t want to face trial by jury.

Many Washington politicians never learned that a nation dominated by an arrogant political class that creates an increasingly intrusive government and sneers at the work of the private sector ends up with an abundance of misery (and a shortage of lumber).

We’ve reached the point where over half of the GDP of the United States is socialized by the various levels of government through taxes, transfer payments, and regulations. Still, there’s no shortage of politicians who push for more. They ignore the key economic fact that the more market-oriented, small government economies around the world outstrip their statist counterparts by virtually every measure. When the Berlin Wall was toppled, the per capita GDP in capitalist West Germany was twice that of socialist East Germany.

Today, South Korea’s GDP is six times that of North Korea. Taiwan’s is more than twenty times that of mainland China.

In 1993, for the first time, the United States had more people employed in government than manufacturing. Making rules was more important than making things. Increasingly, the government became a collection of litigiously minded busybodies and self-righteous social engineers who practiced less and less restraint in their assaults against private enterprise and personal liberty.

What’s springing to life now is the public backlash against the ceaseless growth of monitoring by government bureaucrats and the job-killing explosion of taxation, litigation, and regulation. Making politicians in Washington subject to the rules and regulations they pass is a meaningful first step toward pulling the nation out of its statist rut and returning to common sense.

In November’s election, the public elected more businessmen and businesswomen than lawyers to the freshman class of Congress. Let’s hope they start running Washington, D.C., more like a lumber yard.

  • Ralph R. Reiland is an associate professor of economics at Robert Morris University and a columnist with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.