Rep. Karen Shepherd, D-Utah, said both Democratic and Republican freshmen found early that they agreed on one thing: Congress should obey the same laws it passes for others.
And after nearly two years of fights, the freshmen - with assists from radio talk show hosts and Ross Perot supporters - persuaded the House to pass such a reform on a 427-4 vote.Shepherd, co-chairwoman of the Democratic Freshman Task Force on Reform, said, "This was one of the most important reforms we (Democrats) wanted. And the Republicans had it high on their list, too. So this turned into a real bipartisan effort."
Members of both parties decided to rally behind a bill that had already been introduced by second-term Reps. Dick Swett, D-N.H., and Chris Shays, R-Conn. - which House leaders originally opposed.
"People really want Congress to have the same experiences they have. It makes them angry that we had put ourselves above the law," Shepherd said.
So the House repealed specific exemptions it had given itself to 10 labor, safety and civil rights laws - and passed an amendment saying members must accept whatever basic coverage it eventually passes for others through health-care reform.
If the Senate also adopts the bill, more than 35,000 employees of Congress and related agencies would have the right to organize unions, be paid overtime and file age, race or gender discrimination suits. It would give up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for family medical emergencies. It would prohibit lie-detector tests.
It would make Congress meet the same safety codes, finally, as private businesses, and make it obey laws to make its buildings accessible to the disabled. Congress would also be required to give 60 days' notice when laying off 50 or more employees.
Congressional leaders previously justified exempting themselves from such laws by saying it avoided the possibility of politically inspired enforcement actions from executive branch agencies - which they said would violate separation of powers.
But that allowed talk show hosts and Ross Perot, among others, to charge Congress with arrogance.