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Do as I Say, Not as I Do: How Congress Treats us like Subjects instead of Citizens

As I travel around the state educating voters about Article V, I’m often asked what amendment I would most like to see come out of a convention to limit the power & jurisdiction of the federal government. I reply that if I were honored to be a part of the Illinois delegation, the first amendment that I would fight for is one that would prohibit federal officials from excusing themselves and their friends from the laws to which they subject their fellow citizens.

Many times, the response is an astonished, “They can DO that?!” The shameful fact of the matter is that they can and they do, with shocking regularity. Federal officials have been engaging in this cynical habit for at least 75 years. Here are just some of the laws from which Washington has excused itself:

  • The 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act
  • Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which protects workers from discrimination and sexual harassment
  • Age discrimination statutes
  • OSHA regulations
  • Family & medical leave provisions
  • “Robocall” prohibitions

Apologists for Congressional privilege point out that this prerogative is necessary to protect them from politically-motivated attacks; and since Congress eventually moved to include itself in federally-mandated worker protections, such an amendment is unnecessary. We would argue that while politicians are not uniquely vulnerable to being falsely accused, they have uniquely empowered themselves to silence their accusers. So-called public servants should be prioritizing a fundamental sense of fairness and the needs of the citizenry above their own political careers. It should also be noted that it took over a half-century, multiple legislative attempts, and a very public sexual harassment scandal involving a United States Senator before Congress finally mustered the political will to take steps to provide their own employees with just some of the same protections they require of private-sector employers.

While the 1995 “Congressional Accountability Act” extended discrimination and sexual harassment protections to Congress itself, Congressional staff remain unprotected by the safeguards prescribed in the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989. One has to wonder why, a quarter-century later, Congressional staffers, the people best-situated to observe and expose mismanagement and illegal activity in Congress, remain peculiarly defenseless against reprisal; and how this particular provision happened to be overlooked in the CAA. One also has to wonder why they opted for a 100-plus-page piece of legislation when a simply-worded statute such as “all federally-prescribed worker protections applicable to private sector employees will heretofore be extended to all federal employees, including Congressional staff” would do. Or why Congress opted for a bill that could easily be repealed or modified when they could have instead passed a Constitutional amendment that would guarantee that this sort of dictatorial hypocrisy never happened again. The truth is, there’s no satisfying answer to this “oversight,” but when we look at another of the perks that Congress has legislated for itself, the explanation becomes self-evident.

In addition to worker protections, another area in which Congress has exempted itself from laws that apply to the common man is insider trading…you know, what Martha Stewart went to prison for. Have you ever wondered why the net worth of the average Congressman hovers around $7 million? (Hint: they weren’t all rich when they got to Washington.) Or how disgraced Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, a high school wrestling coach, got his hands on millions of dollars of hush money to buy the silence of his victims? The answer: insider trading. 

Legal for decades, Congress was once again shamed into passing legislation requiring itself to live under the laws they made for the rest of us after an embarrassing 60 Minutes exposé. Amid much fanfare, the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act was passed just before the November elections in an attempt to quell voter outrage directed at incumbents up for reelection; but less than six months later, Congress moved quickly and quietly to suspend the rules and forego debate on a bill to gut the reporting requirements necessary for enforcement of the statute. In a stunning example of politicians blatantly disregarding their responsibility to impose checks and balances upon one another in favor of conspiring with and enabling one another, the President quietly signed the bill into law, not only reinstating an egregious perk, but worse, stating plainly to both Congress and the American people, that yes, We the People are no longer fellow citizens, but subjects. 

Thomas Jefferson said, “Tyranny is defined as that which is legal for the government, but illegal for the citizenry.” By Jefferson’s definition, Washington insiders have, over and over again, acted as tyrants in their quest for power and personal enrichment. When caught, they do as little as they possibly can to appear to address the misconduct, but then work to restore their privilege as quickly as they think they can get away with it. It’s time to stop addressing this corruption in a piecemeal fashion. It's time to tell federal officials once and for all that we will no longer tolerate their tyrannical rule. It’s time for an Article V Convention.

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