MAXWELL:  The joke is on Congress

12/14/1997 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


The campaign finance scandals fouling the air in Washington underscore the American people’s contempt for Congress. While the president and vice president are the main targets of the investigations, most voters believe that the GOP accusers are themselves nothing more than money-grubbing hypocrites.

Such phony outrage makes Congress even more despicable and, of course, laughable. Talk show hosts and others never run out of material. In short, elected officials’ own sorry behavior has made Congress-bashing one of the country’s most colorful pastimes.

Paul Boller, in his book Congressional Anecdotes, presents old and recent observations depicting Congress as a pack of fools. Ironically, many lawmakers are contemptuous of themselves. Boller reports, for example, that shortly after the first Congress had convened in 1789, the self-loathing began. Even then, as Michigan Rep. William Ford would say later, a person had “a constitutional right, when elected to Congress, to be a damned fool and act like one.”

The acerbic Mark Twain kept his quill aimed toward the nation’s capital. “Suppose you were an idiot,” he wrote. “And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”

Will Rogers also disparaged Congress as a menagerie on the Potomac. “When Congress makes a law,” he wrote, “it’s a joke; and when Congress makes a joke, it’s a law.”

Rogers’ wariness was shared by Edward Everett Hale, a Unitarian minister who became chaplain of the Senate. One day, after he had opened a session with prayer, a visitor asked: “Do you pray for the senators, Dr. Hale?” Hale responded, “No, I look at the senators and pray for the country.”

Boller tells of a woman who read a copy of the Congressional Record containing a list of memorial speeches routinely delivered after a legislator dies. “Please,” she wrote to her representative, “send me more Records containing speeches on behalf of some of you dead congressmen. I enjoy reading them so much.”

Indeed, Capitol Hill has seen enough bigots, cowards, drunks, womanizers and other shady characters to make voters sneer at the very thought of politics. But few in the general public are more critical of elected officials than they are of themselves _ which, I suppose, is good because honest introspection purges the soul of vanity and self-deception.

Few congressmen have been more forthright than my senator, the late Claude Pepper, who often berated his “esteemed colleagues.” Pepper loved to joke about the congressman and the bishop who died and arrived in heaven at the same time. The lawmaker was given an elegant suite, while the bishop languished in a tiny, windowless room. When the bishop inquired about his treatment, St. Peter explained: “We have thousands of bishops up here; this is the first congressman we ever got!”

Not surprisingly, a major source of Congress-bashing is the enmity between the two chambers. Boller writes of a congressman’s wife who shakes her husband out of a troubled sleep. “Wake up, John!” she screams. “There are robbers in the house.” The groggy congressman says: “Nonsense, my dear. Robbers in the Senate, yes, but in the House, never!”

Congress’ ability to create gridlock draws universal disapprobation. When Massachusetts Rep. William Everett came back to Boston during his first term in the House, a voter asked him if he liked Congress. Everett replied: “Oh, it’s the funniest place I ever saw. In the House they have got things fixed so that you can’t get anything in, and in the Senate they have arranged things so that you can’t get anything out.”

Indeed, Washington affirms the adage that the love of money is the root of all evil _ and corruption. Boller writes that an elderly senator was asked about the medication that kept him so happy and enthusiastic for his work. “Don’t need medicine,” he said. “I’m under the influence of money.”

We’re fast approaching another congressional election, a time when evasiveness makes Americans despise their senators and representatives more than ever. Can anyone, many voters wonder, pin down an incumbent on the issues? This may be an impossible task, Boller suggests when writing about a voter who pleaded with her congressman to tell her if he was “for” or “against” universal military training.

The congressman replied: “I certainly am.”

In another instance, a journalist asked an incumbent for his position on the military industrial complex issue. The senator said, “I think I’m undecided _ but I’m not sure.” The reporter said: “Senator, I want to congratulate you on the straightfoward manner in which you dodged my question.”

Ah, but is Congress-bashing fair? And exactly who are these people whom we send to “Capitol Hell”?

Consider what California Rep. Vic Fazio told the New York Times in 1990: “I realize there are people who stay here too long, and I realize there are people who don’t stay here as long as they should. I realize there are some people who shouldn’t ever have gotten here. But the genius of this system is that you have a mix of all these people _ the good, the bad, the ugly. It’s a mirror of the country.”