Journalism in the Public Interest

Do As We Say, Congress Says, Then Does What It Wants

Congress exempts itself from a number of laws that apply to the private sector and the executive branch.

Congress exempts itself from a number of laws that apply to the private sector and the executive branch. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

When CBS News reported in 2011 that members of Congress weren’t prohibited from insider trading, Congress moved swiftly.President Obama signed a law banning it within six months of the broadcast.

But Congress is still exempt from portions of a number of federal laws, including provisions that protect workers in the private sector but don’t apply to the legislative branch’s approximately 30,000 employees.

Here’s our rundown of measures Congress exempts itself from:

  • Whistleblower Protections: Congress passed the Whistleblower Protection Act in 1989, which protects workers in the executive branch from retaliation for reporting waste, mismanagement or lawbreaking. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act gives similar protections to private-sectors workers. But legislative-branch workers — a category that includes congressional staffers as well as employees of the Library of Congress, the Architect of the Capitol and other offices —don’t get the same protections.
  • Subpoenas for Health and Safety Probes:  The Occupational Health and Safety Act empowers the U.S. Department of Labor to investigate health and safety violations in private-sector workplaces. If an employer doesn’t cooperate, the agency can subpoena the records it needs. The Office of Compliance, the independent agency that investigates such violations in the legislative branch, doesn’t have the power to issue those subpoenas.
  • Keeping Workplace Records: A number of workplace-rights laws — the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and others — require employers to retain personnel records for a certain period of time. But as a recent report on the congressional workplace notes, “Congress has exempted itself from all of these requirements.” Congress is also exempt from keeping records of injuries and illness the way private-sector employers are.
  • Prosecution for Retaliating Against Employees: If a private-sector employer retaliates against a worker for reporting health or safety hazards, the Department of Labor can investigate and, if necessary, sue the employer. Congress’ Office of Compliance doesn’t have that power — legislative-branch employees must file suit personally and pay their own legal fees.
  • Posting Notices of Workers’ Rights: Workplace-rights laws require employers to post notices of those rights, which often appear in office lunchrooms. Congress is exempt from this requirement, though this has little real-world impact. The Office of Compliance sends legislative employees the same information each year, formatted “in a manner suitable for posting.”
  • Anti-Discrimination and Anti-Retaliation Training: The No Fear Act requires agencies in the executive branch to provide such training to employees, but the legislative branch is exempt.
  • The Freedom of Information Act: The public can request information from federal agencies, but Congress, the federal courts and some parts of the Executive Office of the President are exempt.

In addition to sparing itself from complying with measures it has made mandatory for others, Congress is violating of some of the laws that do apply to it, according to a recent report from the Office of Compliance. (The pint-sized agency, created by Congress in 1995, is responsible for enforcing a number of workplace-rights laws in the legislative branch.) The sidewalks surrounding the three House office buildings, the report noted, don’t comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Neither do the restrooms in the House and Senate office buildings and the Library of Congress’ James Madison Building.

The Office of Compliance cites certain congressional exemptions as particularly problematic. The agency’s inability to subpoena information regarding some legislative workers’ complaints about health and safety often means the office must negotiate with congressional offices to gather the facts it needs.  

“It can tie our hands sometimes,” said Barbara J. Sapin, the office’s executive director.

The Office of Compliance has urged Congress to apply the laws listed above to itself — except the Freedom of Information Act — with little result. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the non-voting delegate who represents the District of Columbia, introduced a bill in 2011 to do this, but it died in committee.

The number of complaints of discrimination and harassment filed by legislative-branch workers with the Office of Compliance has nearly doubled in the last two years, from 102 in the 2009 fiscal year to 196 in the 2011 fiscal year. Workers’ complaints about retaliation or intimidation have risen even more sharply, from 36 in fiscal year 2009 to 108 in fiscal year 2011.

Even so, Debra Katz, a Washington lawyer who specializes in workplace-rights law, said some Capitol Hill employees might be holding back from filing complaints. House and Senate staffers, she said, are often reluctant to speak up about harassment or discrimination for fear of jeopardizing their careers.

“People are very loath to burn bridges by filing a complaint or going to the Office of Compliance,” she said. “They don’t want to go forward with bringing a claim, even when it’s covered under the law.”

The only areas where bi-partisanship exists are these and the many benefits and perks that Congress receives.  Oh, don’t forget the exemption for insider trading.  What if Monica could have filed a complaint?

And yet, they can’t understand why their approval rating is dropping.  Or why people don’t respect their increasingly-draconian laws.

I think you mean increasingly draconian laws for the little people. For the “upper crust” criminal, enforcement is almost nonexistent. I am referring to the world economic meltdown, fraud by banks, and war criminality primarily, but these issues are well known to almost everyone.

The United States drastically needs Politicial Reform.  I think every aspiring Politician seeking a Public Office should show a minimum of 10 years of Tax Returns and should serve a maximum of two term limits then you’re out.  All incumbent politicians should be mandated to show their personal Tax Returns while serving in office.  This goes from the House Majority Leader and the House Minority Leader to their Rank and File.  Since they are public servant’s their tax returns should be a matter of public record.  Politicians should get back to basics by enrolling in the same health care, Retirement and/or Social Security programs as their constituents.  Politicians should be held accountable and barred from their place of employment and striped of their entitlements when caught utilizing their office/position for personal gain (to include their family members).  The State that elected (Hired) these idiots should pay their salaries, medical, retirement plan and/or Social Security benefits and not the Federal Government.  One term in office does not justify a life time of benefits and special treatment paid for by the Tax Payer.  Politicians should be prohibited from becoming a Lobbyist after leaving political office for a minimum of five years.  This self serving (trying to do me) and self righteousness mentality of our politicians is a sorry joke played on the American Voter/Tax Payer.  Politicians using insider information for profit should be jailed, lose their tenure and all profits confiscated by the State that voted them into office. Limit campaign contributions and show the identity of all campaign contributors foreign and/or domestic.

A recent act of congress shows how both sides can agree! A bill recently sailed through congress with almost unanimous concent which gave lifetime protection to 2 former presidents, G.W.Bush and the present president, Mr.Obama! This superceded past legislation limiting protection to 10 years! See how quickly both sides can agree if it is for one of their own!

The reporter left out the most important difference between what it does and what is expected of everyone else.

The IRS code and the SEC require almost every major company to keep its records using an accrual method.

The U.S. government keeps its own set of books. The national debt of 16 trillion plus is only the tip. Throw in government pensions, Medicare, Medicare, Social Security and Obama Care and you have obligations many times this amount.

But then the government is different. Everyone is expected to pay their obligations. The government can simply print money and pay with fiat. Hold on to your hats when the dollar’s value starts disappearing.

They really don’t get it.  The people that are not in politics are very good people but are arming themselves against them?  Colddeadfi gets are being over heard in grocery stores of middle class neighborhoods!  Maybe we will get lucky and just have a little civil disobedience but now I hear talk of a tax strike by ordinary non political people!  That may get their attention but everyone seems to agree the greed corruption is too deep.other countries threw banisters in jail to forstallsome corruption charges.  As al gore just said they cannot make an move without their lobby masters.  It’s am aiding how a cna just told ember paycheck was dipped into by 40 a week. The poor child can’t eat and wants to become a nurse.  Trying to save money for an education works so hard and is so screwed by her government who does not supply adequate police fire or emergency help.  Shame shame shame. They are all homeland steel Fisk people to stifle all but large lobby people and call me to extort money from my business under the thin veil I will be able to help write laws ago protect my business!!!!  What business owner has t been tapped by these vultures to make a donation of 10 k to be on a committe?  I welcome al jazzed news maybe they will expose how corrupt these guys have become and everyone knows they are just one party of corruption.

Great reporting..Yes, Years ago I believe it was Arlo Guthrie who wrote the words: “It is easier to rob someone with an ink pen than it is with a six-gun”.  I believe the article above is the core of our problem.  They use their ink pen to put themselves above the law.

Patrick Guilfoyle

Feb. 1, 2013, 2:07 p.m.

I am appauled that Congress will pass a bill so that healthcare providers do not get kickbacks for referrals that bill the government (Medicare, Medicaid), but they can get lobbyists and special interests money. Congress now spends at least 85% of their time, begging fro contributions. We have seen how they are supposed to represent the people (not corporations), but they pass bills against american citizens and favor corporations. GET THE MONEY OUT OF POLITICS!!!!

Congress and Senate are now Royalty! Just watch how they act with the common people and the laws they pass for you and me but exempt thee!
Its time to put an end to this. Constitution amendment stating politicians must abide by the same laws they pass for the common person.

Since the financial meltdown and the pool has emptied we have been seeing where the bodies have been hidden. From personally investing in the prison system, insider trading, job for life with benefits no matter how little your “work”, sending our youth to die for the profit of the vice president, and putting themselves above all laws has created a white hot burning hatred not only amongst those they are sworn to serve but manage to create terrorists from their actions.
And yet we the people still after all this over the last half century of unbridled corruption people will still stay as a democrat or a republican and wonder why nothing ever changes.
The only thing worse than congress is our wretched justice system which is completely out of control indeed it’s the police unions more than any other that provide BOTH parties with tons of cash taken from who knows where.
We are doomed and I for one have no hope at all.

Who would expect anything different? A system that is, and has been, broken for a long time. Congress exempts itself from laws that would affect their ability to milk the system, great example of the fox guarding the hen house.

I bet there are many more laws that exempt Congress.

patrick guilfoyle

Feb. 2, 2013, 4:56 p.m.

We do have a choice. Are WE THE PEOPLE going to force the change that we need. Democracy requires citizen participation, not only at the voting booth, but becoming active participants. The more we remain couch potatoes, the more is taken away from us. We stopped nuclear power plant construction in 1979 by protesting. Tar sands pipe construction remains an issue. But the most important thing we need to do is GET MONEY OUT OF POLITICS and away from corporate lobbyists. In 40 years, lobbying went from 1971- about 100, to 2008-33,000. Don’t say that has been problem for a long time and think YOU can’t change it. Look, our relatives faught hard for the rights and democracy we need. GET $ OUT OF POLITICS….

If it smells, operates, will do anything for power and money, helps only family and friends it must be Russia’s Politbureau. Wait, it is our Congress but our Democracy has been turned into a Corpocracy because our Supreme Court has elevated a corporation to the status of a person along with its’ money where both have First Amendment rights and protection. All Hail, the decision in Citizens United vs Federal.
Your vote is now meaningless because the SuperPacs corporate funding of elections floods the majority of media information needed to make an informed choice between candidates and proposed ballot initiatives.
Best we all starting learning our place surfs.

Boy Fred, You hit the nail on the head. Serfdom is here to stay they have us by the short hairs. Look for prosperity for the foreign and poverty for the dwindling middle class I guess this is what an equal society will be for we the people, equal poverty.

I’ve been telling anyone who would listen the same thing. The changes mentioned would stop these cancers that are killing our form of government.
I would add that any bill introduced in congress must stand or fall its merits. NO AMENDMENTS OR ADD ONS.

Fred, I am with you no amendments stands or falls on its merits.

Patrick, I’d say you’re not going quite far enough.

The problem, as I see it, is that the last thirty years—maybe intentionally, maybe not—have had the government actively doing things that breed distrust in the population, causing people to turn away in disgust.

Most of us don’t vote because we don’t see the point, and there probably isn’t a point.  But that’s not the end of a Democracy (or Republic, or whatever technical term one wants to use to skirt an issue of representation).

Today, nobody protests.  I was thrilled to see the Occupy people and even the Tea Party before it, just because people were speaking out, which was more than anybody has done in decades.  Sure, they just sort of stood out of the way, for the most part, and I didn’t agree with all of what either group was saying, but it was a start, at least.

The next step is to contact our Congressmen (or their staffs) as directly as possible on issues that matter.

My theory is that, since none of us will talk to our Fearless Leaders, and when we do we’re often extremely impolite and indirect, we’re leaving the path clear for lobbyists to get their hooks in.

After all, if your choice is to listen to a lobbyist who takes you out to lunch and says his client represents hundreds of thousands of jobs and some creep who calls you names, makes threats, and rambles for a page about grassy knolls, who would you listen to and who would you marginalize?  I know which way I’d lean.

So, we need to take that excuse away from them.  We need to commit to regularly contacting our representatives—politely and respectfully—to tell them our thoughts on the major issues coming before Congress.  We need to be better sources of knowledge and opinion than the people with money.

We also need to vote smart.  Anybody who’s complaining about this and votes for a candidate who takes corporate donations or buys products from those very corporations is part of the problem.

I mean, sure, fight the big fights, too, of course, and count me in.  But all the same, a straight fight against an opponent who holds all the cards isn’t a fight the little guy wins.  But if we can undermine their support and give them a lifeline off the sinking ship…

The answer is simple: elect clean players. [as if . . .]
You know, the history of Congress has ever been thus. It’s the system we have. You can only tweak around the edges. The only answer is to elect better bums.

John, I too felt the same way about the Tea Party and their willingness to speak out and raise the issue of fiscal responsibility. Interestingly they have systematically been bashed. I also saw a glimmer of hope in the liberty movement of Ron Paul’s. I hope those who were firmly behind the liberty movement will continue to build strength and numbers.

pgillenw, as an organization, they were co-opted and became something that (I assume) the participants didn’t intend.  Then candidates they supported got into office to immediately show off their ignorance about how finance works and their inability do do much more than throw a tantrum.

Plus, I think watching Europe put a nail in their coffin, too:  We can now see that austerity in a down economy can push an economy further down.

John, Yes the Tea Party was co-opted.

I think Europe and the austerity measures needed was a tad to late. For many of Europe’s country’s the workers certainly enjoyed more goodies than workers here in the U.S.. I don’t make any claims for understanding this global market experiment but I don’t think its working out well for the older economy’s e.g. Europe, U.S., Canada and the like. I don’t think healthy employment will return to the U.S. and Europe. Most folks here in the U.S. will find that when they get a job it will be substandard wages.

Our government has acted irresponsibly, they are unethical, work with no moral compass and they count themselves in an elite class.

The real concern now is the civil unrest, class warfare, unrest between racial groups that will occur and the worst to come will be the harshness of our governments reaction to the unrest. I truly feel for the upcoming generation(s).

I don’t know if Europe could be doing better, really, except through deficit spending.  Figure that money itself has no value (true no matter what the currency, even commodity monies—if money was inherently useful, it’d get pulled out of the economy, causing catastrophic deflation) except when someone’s spending it.

As I said, this isn’t really the place for the discussion, but to clarify my meaning, if the people can’t or won’t spend their money, the government needs to fill in to prevent a chain reaction meltdown.  Consider, in the aggregate, each time one of us decides to put off a purchase, we increase the stress on the economy slightly, by delaying when a shopkeeper can pay rent, the landlord paying his mortgage, the bank can’t cover withdrawals, and we spiral into the abyss.

Of course—and you’re getting at this, as well—the government needs to spend on something useful.  Blowing up villages halfway around the world doesn’t spur the economy, whereas public WiFi would.  Perks for Congress, no, improved health care, yes.  (The rules change when times are good, of course, unless there’s some reason to massively expand the economy.  But they seem to match up historically for bad times:  Big deficits do good in down economies, for governments.)

You’re right that jobs aren’t coming back.  The work will, eventually, but it’ll be automated.  And it’s going to grow to the “knowledge” sector, too, very quickly.  I see that as a good thing, overall, but it’s going to require seriously rethinking the economy beyond industrial-era capitalism-versus-socialism with a growing and aging population with less and less to do and (with 3D printers, solar energy, et al) fewer needs.

I suspect that’s the source of a lot of the unrest as well as the corporate abuse a lot of people have been seeing.  If the number of jobs required is going to continue to drop and all we know how to do is work for someone else, we want to defend “our” jobs (that we largely hate) from those other people invading and taking them.

But again, not really the forum for that, and trust me, I could talk about this sort of stuff for days, as if that weren’t already obvious…

jjrjon and Fred. I agree!

Our economy thrives on war and the military/industrial complex that Ike warned us about when he left office.We are still engaged in a 12 year ongoing war and have troops in 165 or so countries. We manufacture 40% of all kinds of weapons which we sell or use as bartering chips to to get our way.
Generals and other high ranking government officials lobby congress every day for their corporate overlords.
Depending what figures you believe are correct there are now between 33 to 47 thousand lobbyists in Washington DC today.
The American public doesn’t have a chance in hell to get the ear of any of their elected representatives. The reason that there aren’t anymore massive street demonstrations is that we have become a hand to mouth society struggling to exist the best we can. Unfortunately, the Occupy Wall Street movement died because they had to survive.  Corporacy is the cancer that is alive and well and will turn our country into a 3rd world country as far as the 98% is concerned.

John, I was confused by the sudden emergence of Occupy.  The news reported that they had received 500k of dollars then as quickly that they came on the scene they seem to have disappeared.

I was and remain concerned about the class warfare that has emerged in the past 4 years. I fear a pattern that will only worsen if the economy is not turned around and that the new digital age that is up on us does not find a way to bring prosperity to those who are not the creators of tech.

Patrick Guilfoyle

Feb. 7, 2013, 2:37 p.m.

OWS has divided into departments, lets say….Occupy SEC, STOP FORECLOSURES LOCALLY, press banker prosecutions, stop $ in politics etc….. since FBI infiltrated it, like any protests, they smartly decided to divide up jobs….it is still working…

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