Empty Promise

Posted December 5, 2003 at 5:03pm

Suppose, just for the sake of argument, that a Member of Congress runs his district office like a hellhole sweatshop. It has a nice lobby to fool constituents, but where his staff works, it’s dirty, crowded, unsafe and has bad ventilation. Moreover, the bosses are systematically abusive, as is the Member. Would the staff have the right to sue under the Congressional Accountability Act?

Remember CAA? It was one of the crown reforms of the 1995 Republican Revolution, requiring for the first time that Members of Congress obey the same worker health, safety and employment rights laws that they long required private employers and the executive branch to observe. It now appears, though, that the CAA was a half-empty promise. That’s of a piece with some other solemn vows made by the GOP before it became entrenched in power, notably its pledge to apply the Golden Rule to the Democratic minority.

In the hypothetical case we posited at the outset, if the Simon Legree Member were a Senator, he’d be stoutly defended in court by the chamber’s chief counsel for employment, Jean Manning, who would argue — as she has in three real cases — that the Speech or Debate Clause of the Constitution prohibits Members from being sued by employees who have anything to do with the legislative process. Manning seems to believe that the CAA covers only janitorial employees, police officers and other service staffers, not anyone working for Members or committees.

In 2001, she won dismissal of a sexual harassment lawsuit by Sen. Max Baucus’ (D-Mont.) ex-chief of staff. More recently, and questionably, she has challenged suits brought by ex-state office employees of Sens. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) and Mark Dayton (D-Minn.). She won the Campbell case in a federal district court. It’s under appeal. The Dayton case is pending.

What’s disturbing about Manning’s actions is that they are proceeding with the apparent blessing of Senate leaders — and House leaders, too. Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) have protested Manning’s actions, but there’s not been a peep from Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) or his predecessors, Trent Lott (R-Miss.) or Tom Daschle (D-S.D.). In the House, CAA co-authors Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Jim Moran (D-Va.) appealed to Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) to get the House counsel’s office to file an amicus brief challenging Manning’s actions. They failed, suggesting that House leaders are satisfied with the way things are.

Back in the days before CAA, Congress ran like a plantation and its employees had no rights to complain or appeal mistreatment. All that was supposed to change. Alas, Congress has reneged on its promise.