Rep. Tony Schnell: The fake congressman who rallied Congress into real action


Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

In 1999, Rep. Tony Schnell (R-Ohio) sponsored a bill that made everyone in America angry. Constituents sent furious emails to their legislators. The outcry grew so intense that Congress quickly passed a law that made sure Schnell's proposal would never become a reality.

It's a beautiful parable of Congress listening to the people who elected them. Until you learn that Tony Schnell didn't exist. And neither did the legislative proposal he "authored" that would have instituted a five-cent tax on every e-mail sent.

It was an Internet hoax, a cultural virus that had reached pandemic proportions at the turn of the century. (This can be verified by the fact that Reader's Digest wrote an article about Internet hoax fact checker Snopes in 2009. It takes Reader's Digest at least a decade to realize that a trend happened.)

When Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) rose to support the Internet Access Charge Prohibition Act of 2000, he said, "I find it quite amazing that a phantom congressman by the name of Schnell has more success in jump-starting the legislative process than those of us here by actual election of the people. I only regret that Congressman Schnell is not a conferee on some of the more important legislation currently languishing in the conferences between the House and the Senate."

If a fictional legislator could defeat the ills of gridlock, what's to say a new one couldn't be the perfect fix for the current Congress's languishing approval rating? However, Congress might not want to relive the grief Rep. Tony Schnell caused them more than a decade ago, even if it would help them pass a few bills.

It all started in 1999, when avid lovers of chain e-mails (this is 1999, so that meant everyone) started hearing about House bill 602P. The U.S. Postal Service, hurting from the advent of the Internet, would get the revenue from the e-mail tax, and service providers would need to pay out. Consumers assumed that some of the costs would be transferred to their monthly bills. There were rumors that another bill, proposing long-distance charges on Internet usage, was being floated.

None of this was true, for several obvious reasons. First, there was no Ohio representative named Tony Schnell. There was no elected official at the Capitol named Tony Schnell. There has never been a federal legislator named Tony Schnell. A quick Google search -- which was heading toward ubiquity at this point -- could have resolved the fury quickly.

There was another problem with the Internet hoax. House bills do not have strange "P"s appended to their end. If the fictitious bill wanted to look more legit, it should have been H.R. 602. However, all of these clues pointing to the rumor's falsity did little to deter the American people from an old-fashioned uninformed freak-out. The email that proved the controversy's catalyst ended by asking the aggrieved to get in touch with their representative.

The Chicago Tribune reported that Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) received 6,000 messages about Internet worries in 1999. Then-Rep. (and now-again-Rep.) Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) said he received at least 40 complaints about the email tax. The Los Angeles Times noted that Sanford viewed "the phenomenon as a demonstration that people should not take Internet information at face value."

Government bureaucracies also faced the wrath of inveterate e-mailers. Sue Brennan, who has been at the Postal Service since 1996, wrote in an e-mail that the callers "had very strong opinions and didn’t quite know how to take it when they were told it wasn’t true and that the congressman didn’t exist."

"The initial issue lasted a couple weeks," she added, "and then it would flare up every once in a while after that." It eventually died down. "I haven’t gotten an inquiry in years," Brennan wrote, although they do have to contend with other hoaxes like annual complaints about why the Postal Service is canceling its Black History Month Stamp program.

The Federal Communications Commission fielded thousands of calls from Internet users worried about those long-distance charges. Newspapers received questions from readers who wanted to know Schnell's address so they could complain.

The FCC and Postal Service both debunked the hoax prominently on their Web sites. You can still find an explanation of why 602-P is not real only two clicks away from the U.S. Senate's homepage.

If people didn't look in these obvious places for the answer to the mystery of the e-mail tax, one could always rely on the '90s relic of the Lisa Frank-hued message board, where people always stumbled upon the truth eventually.

The issue even became part of Hillary Clinton's New York Senate campaign in 2000. In "Congress Online: Bridging the Gap Between Citizens and their Representatives," Dennis W. Johnson writes that Clinton and her Republican opponent Rick Lazio were asked about their opinion on Schnell's bill. They were both against it.

In the end, Congress passed a law to prohibit the Internet charges that were never even being considered in the first place. Although Rep. Tony Schnell has never spoken on the House floor, he was mentioned frequently during the debate over H.R. 1291, the "Internet Access Charge Prohibition Act of 2000."

As previously mentioned, Dingell rose in support of the bill, although he added, "the situation before us is still somewhat Kafka-esque and does indeed participate of the rather wry humor of that kind of story." He went on to give a Capra-esque soliloquy on the situation, just to make sure his colleagues knew how stupid he thought this all was.

I would note that many congressional offices have been bombarded with an insidious e-mail campaign over the past year denouncing the fictitious legislation introduced by Mr. Schnell , who does not exist, which would accomplish precisely the opposite result of the bill we consider today. I only hope that the passage of H.R. 1291 will finally extinguish this cyber-myth for once and all. I am not convinced, however, that mounting a massive legislative counterattack on a fictitious bill introduced by a make-believe congressman is the best use of the time of this House -- particularly when the subject of that bogus bill, if it were actually introduced, is so contrary to the public interest, that it would have zero chance of success in this legislative body. My puzzlement extends further to the speed with which the leadership has rushed this legislation to the floor. What we are considering today is a fabricated solution to an imaginary problem, yet the leadership seems to believe that this virtual bill is so important that the Committee on Commerce was asked to dispense with the regular order and bypass subcommittee consideration.

Democratic Rep. Gene Green (Tex.), one of the bill's many co-sponsors, said:

The gentleman from Michigan, our ranking member, said sometimes this Congress does better by sponsoring fictitious bills by fictitious members than they do real-life legislation. H.R. 1291 is real-life legislation, but I agree with the gentleman, oftentimes. Hopefully the voters would not have elected Congressman Schnell anyway, if he had introduced such a bill.

The law passed and the anger faded, but Rep. Tony Schnell has made a few more appearances on the House floor. During debate on the Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act of 2006, Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) said, championing the wonders of the Internet:

I'm sure we all remember the infamous -- and mythical -- Congressman Schnell who was introducing legislation to tax the Internet? Only the Internet could start and rapidly transmit -- and keep going for years -- such an easily knocked-down rumor. But it is precisely this unbridled freedom on the Internet that has also brought us innovation on an almost un-imaginable scale over the last decade or so.

During a Subcommittee on Energy and Power hearing on the Farm Dust Regulation Prevention Act of 2011, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) who concurred with Dingell that the Internet Access Charge law was a bit asinine in 2000, said:

 There was just one problem. None of it was real. There was no bill 602P. There wasn't even a Congressman Schnell in the House of Representatives. The whole thing was an Internet hoax, and everyone should have just moved on. But Republicans forged ahead. They introduced the Internet Access Charge Prohibition Act of 1999, apparently because only by passing actual legislation to prohibit the goals of the imaginary legislation authored by a fictitious congressman could we prevent these horrible surcharges from being imposed in the real world. But it didn't just do that, that piece of legislation. Then it went on further to actually include provisions which would have hurt poor and rural Americans to get phone service. So I am reminded of that legislation as we consider this bill to prevent the regulation of farm dust.

Rep. Tony Schnell may have been a fake representative, but his lessons are immortal.

Dingell wasn't the only person to note the speed with which Congress responded to the fake legislation. Darryl Lease, a columnist at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, wrote in 2000,

Wouldn't you like to see Congress do something to shore up Social Security? Wouldn't you like to see campaign finance reform? Why not get the fake Schnell to write fake bills proposing, say, that the Federal Elections Commission issue candidates big boxes of Glad trash bags to carry away campaign donations? Before you can say, "You've got mail," real, live congressmen will jump into action and stop Tony.

However, the hopes of another fake politician obliterating Congressional gridlock may be as farfetched as the idea of anyone uttering the words "You've got mail," besides Nora Ephron disciples and Tom Hanks. Tony Schnell may have pushed Congress to pass a law quickly, but remember, that law also solved a nonexistent problem. If Congress is going to finish their long to-do list by the time they head out of town for five weeks on Thursday, they'll need to call on a higher power than Tony Schnell.

Jaime Fuller reports on national politics for "The Fix" and Post Politics. She worked previously as an associate editor at the American Prospect, a political magazine based in Washington, D.C.
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