Two House committees, Judiciary and Education and Labor, have now reported legislation to overturn the Grove City decision, which weakened the power of the federal government to enforce civil rights laws. The bill is targeted to a specific problem involving the application of the law to an entire institution when only a part of the institution discriminates. Sponsors want to keep the proposal focused on this issue and vote in a block to defeat amendments not directly related to this question. That is wise legislative strategy, even though it forced postponement of committee consideration of an important reform designed to make civil rights employment laws applicable to Congress.

Madison wrote confidently, in the Federalist Papers, that members of Congress would be restrained from enacting oppressive measures because "they can make no law which will not have its full operation on themselves and their friends, as well as on the great mass of the society. This has always been deemed one of the strongest bonds by which human policy can connect the rulers and the people together. It creates between them that communion of interests and sympathy of sentiments of which few governments have furnished examples; but without which every government degenerates into tyranny." Madison did not foresee Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination in employment and from which Congress carefully exempted itself.

Remedial legislation has been offered. Rep. Lynn Martin's bill has 69 bipartisan cosponsors. Rep. Patricia Schroeder's proposal, also widely supported, has been around since 1978. Both measures allow some leeway so that legislators would be free to hire staff from the home district and the same political party, and both recognize the separation-of-powers problem by creating outside panels to hear complaints, rather than sending them to the courts. But most of the 30,000 employees on the Hill and 17,000 in the federal courts -- they are now exempt too -- are not in sensitive, policy-making positions, and they need and deserve the same protections given to employees in private industry. A cafeteria worker, clerical aide or service worker should not suffer discrimination because of race, religion, national origin, sex, age or handicap just because he is employed by Congress and not a corporation. Now that the House committees have reported the Grove City bill, they should turn their attention to this problem of justice for those who are so close to home.