Even with House bank's demise, lawmakers enjoy a wealth of perks

October 05, 1991|By Peter Osterlund | Peter Osterlund,Washington Bureau of The SunWashington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- After he called on the House of Representatives to shutter its private bank Thursday, House Speaker Thomas S. Foley explained his action this way:

"No member of Congress should enjoy any privilege . . . that's not available to any other citizen."

Mr. Foley, D-Wash., was referring to the bank's practice of honoring rubber checks signed by lawmakers. But if the speaker were taken at his word, "his limousine would be the first to go," as Representative Andrew Jacobs Jr., D-Ind., put it.

And Mr. Foley would not be the only member of Congress to endure the jolting transformation. Though some captains of industry may command cushier perquisites, membership in Congress has its own unique privileges.

That's something newly elected lawmakers discover on their first day at work, when they are handed so-called "green books" detailing the special services at their disposal. It costs about $2.3 billion a year to run the government's legislative branch, which includes the watchdog General Accounting Office, the Congressional Budget Office, the Library of Congress and a host of other entities. Of that, a bit less than $1.3 billion is set aside for the Congress proper, a figure that works out to more than $2 million per lawmaker.

A small part of that -- it's difficult to say exactly how much -- is dedicated to the provision of personal services and comforts. Need a workout? Choose from one of three fully equipped private gyms, complete with swimming pool. Feeling under the weather? The 30-doctor Capitol physician's office is run by a two-star admiral, and all its services -- including pharmacy, medical lab and ambulance -- are free to lawmakers (though they cost taxpayers more than $2 million a year).

Thinking about retirement? The pension system may be the nation's most generous. You can start collecting benefits after age 50 if you've served 20 years, after age 60 if you've served 10. Want to curl up with a good book? The Library of Congress has 27 million of them, and you and your family -- but not the voters -- are welcome to check a few out. A haircut? Less than $5. A car wash? They do it by hand in the Capitol garage -- and for just $3. Child care? The best and the cheapest.

Then there are "privileges" for which there is no real-world equivalent. Lawmakers fly home free, travel at government expense on official business, avail themselves of the convenient private Capitol travel agency and procure passports directly from the State Department, without waiting in line. Each commands a personal staff, often of dozens, whose collective purpose is to advance the member's career. Lawmakers park free at Washington National Airport, too, in an exclusive, convenient lot -- arguably the most valuable perk, given the congestion ordinary travelers experience.

It's hard to put a price tag on some perks. Many niceties, for example, don't add a dime to the legislative budget, though someone always seems to pay. Washington's airport authority, for example, sacrifices $1.5 million a year to clear 177 premium spaces for lawmakers, Supreme Court justices and diplomats.

Other privileges don't cost anything. Like exemption from many federal statutes. Congress is not covered by many of the laws it passes, because separation-of-powers considerations prevent the executive branch from enforcing congressional observance of its own laws.

"In the name of civil, social, physical and economic working rights and standards for American workers, we pass landmark legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt. "Working standards for most American workers, that is. Not if you're a member of Congress."

Congress has taken some steps to bring itself in line with the rest of America, though some doubt whether those steps have had much practical effect. In 1979, Congress adopted a rule prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age or physical handicap. But, as Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, points out, the rule "has no enforcement mechanism and no standards for accountability."

Indeed, 10 years after lawmakers adopted Rule 42, Mr. Glenn's Senate Governmental Affairs Committee conducted a survey of employees of the Capitol architect, who is responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of congressional property. It found that 90 percent of black workers were employed in positions starting at $14,000 a year, while 90 percent of white workers were in positions starting at $19,500 a year.

Two years ago, reports of Dickensian working conditions in the House's main newsletter-preparation facility triggered an outcry in the press and an embarrassed overhaul of congressional personnel policies -- some of them, anyway. Nevertheless, a bill to remove the congressional exemption from civil rights and fair employment laws disappeared in the last Congress with hardly a whimper.

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