In the last few months alone, members of the House of Representatives have compared themselves to thieves, zombies, dope fiends, Donald Duck and babies in need of toilet training. We wouldn't dream of disagreeing-but hey, they still put on the best shown in town. Part 1: ON THE SOYBEAN STANDARD
The federal budget had run out, the government had shut down, and now, late on the night of October 7, the House of Representatives was meeting in a special emergency session to ponder some way to solve the crisis. The galleries were packed and the crowd hushed and leaned forward to listen as Neal Smith (D-Iowa) rose to address the House:
"Mr. Speaker, you know, you cannot eat gold, but you can eat soybeans," he said. "Would it not make more sense to go on the soybean standard?"
On the House floor, the representatives were laughing. But up in the galleries, the citizens were confused: Did he say the soybean standard?
Only two days earlier, House members had dramatically defeated the budget summit deficit-reduction package. They'd passed a resolution to keep the government going for another week, but President Bush had vetoed it. Now, the government had shut down "non-essential" functions, including the Washington Monument and the Smithsonian museums, and so hundreds of disappointed tourists had come to the House, which was about the only show in town.
But what they saw there was a bit, well, bizarre.
At 1 p.m. House members convened and then immediately recessed until 4 to give a committee time to draw up a new budget plan. At 4, they reconvened, learned that the committee hadn't finished its work and immediately recessed until 6 -- provoking a chorus of boos from the galleries. At 6, they reconvened, made a few quick speeches and recessed until 8:30. At 8:30, they reconvened, talked about why the committee hadn't finished its work yet and recessed until 9:30. At 9:45, they reconvened and the speaker pro tempore, John Murtha (D-Pa.), urged members to get up and make some speeches -- please! -- because the committee still hadn't produced a budget plan.
He didn't have to ask twice. House members are good that way. Called upon to speak, they'll gladly get up and say a few words. Or more.
Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) launched into a scathing attack on House Republicans. E "Kika" de la Garza (D-Tex.), chairman of the Agriculture Committee, told a long story about his trip on a nuclear submarine, a story designed to illustrate the idea that nuclear submarines had won the Cold War and that the crews on nuclear submarines ate food, and that food was grown by farmers and therefore the House should not cut the agriculture budget. Then William Dannemeyer (R-Calif.) rose to denounce Torricelli for being "on the political left" and for being a danger to American taxpayers and . . .
"Will the gentleman yield?" asked Sam Gejdenson (D-Conn.), who was grinning mischievously under his bushy moustache.
"I yield to the gentleman from Connecticut," said Dannemeyer.
"I thank the gentleman for yielding," said Gejdenson. "I'm surprised the gentleman did not bring in the gold standard at some point."
The Democrats giggled and tittered and laughed aloud. They were privy to a private joke: Encouraging Dannemeyer to talk about the gold standard is akin to asking your most boring in-law to show slides of his trip to Niagara Falls.
"Would you like for me to talk about that?" asked Dannemeyer. He was only too happy to oblige, and he was soon soaring into an impassioned oration on how America's financial problems -- and the Soviet Union's too -- stemmed from the fact that its money was no longer backed by gold.
And then Neal Smith rose to ask his question about the soybean standard.
"I admire the taste and utility of soybeans," Dannemeyer replied, "but I do not think they qualify as a storehouse of value."
Besides, he added, "gold does not grow mold."
Finally, James Bilbray (D-Nev.) rose to inject a little reality into the proceedings. "I would like to point out one thing, in case the public is out there watching everything that is going on," he said. "They may wonder where we are at, what we are doing talking about the gold standard . . ." This talk was mere "filler," Bilbray informed the viewers, something to pass the time while the House waited to work on the budget.
"So, please," he begged, "do not think we are a bunch of fools tonight." Part 2: "A LITTLE MORE RAUCOUS, A LITTLE MORE FUN"
Thank you for clearing that up, Congressman Bilbray.
Sometimes it's difficult to tell when House members are acting foolish on purpose and when they're doing it inadvertently. So it helps to get the inside scoop.
Bilbray could have added another tip for citizens watching the House for the first time: No matter how serious the issues being discussed -- and they're frequently quite crucial to the fate of mankind -- the House is always poised on the verge of low comedy, strange stunts or just plain wackiness.
On the day of the great budget debate, for example, the House was pondering its biennial pre-election anti-crime package, and there were so many amendments designed to expand the list of crimes punishable by death that House liberals could no longer control themselves. So they started a satirical chant: "Kill! Kill! Kill!"
And one of the liberals, David Obey (D-Wis.), rose to make a sardonic inquiry: "Mr. Chairman, would it be possible to bring the guillotines directly to the House floor?"
They don't do stuff like that in the Senate. The Senate is too stodgy, too stately, too . . . well, senatorial for such stunts. But the House has never been accused of stateliness, at least not by anybody who has seen it in action. The House's charm lies precisely in its wonderful lack of stateliness, pretension, even dignity. It's a funny, funky place populated by an eclectic collection of eccentric American characters. It's also a mecca for connoisseurs of the human comedy and aficionados of the Theater of the Absurd.
"The House is a little more raucous, a little more fun," says Andy Jacobs (D-Ind.). He ought to know. In the late '70s, he and John Dingell (D-Mich.) nearly came to blows on the House floor while debating whether the peregrine falcon should be included on the official list of endangered species. A few years later, Jacobs distributed hand-held portable urinals to his fellow members of the House Ways and Means Committee so they wouldn't have to wade through the hordes of lobbyists encamped between them and the men's room.
The Senate is known as "the most exclusive club in the world," and its 100 members are inevitably addressed as "Senator." The House is known as "the people's chamber," and many of its 435 members officially encourage people to call them "Sonny" or "Jimmy" or "Chip" or "Buddy" or "Buz."
Senators run every six years and are generally questioned about the Great Issues of Our Time. House members run every two years -- the voters will choose all 435 on Tuesday -- and the questions tend to be less lofty. "With the Senate, they expect them to be statesmanlike," says Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.). "With us, it's, 'Hey, I called you at 11 o'clock on Christmas Eve and you didn't unstop my drain.' "
Sometimes it helps to think of our bicameral national legislature this way:
The Senate is a gentleman's club. The House is a fraternity.
The Senate is the New York Times. The House is the New York Post.
The Senate is "Washington Week in Review." The House is "The Morton Downey Jr. Show." Part 3: IS THE HOUSE REPRESENTATIVE?
The Senate is composed of 98 white men and two white women. The House has plenty of white men too, Lord knows, but it also has 28 women, 24 blacks, 13 Hispanics and one American Indian. The American Indian is Ben Nighthorse Campbell (D-Colo.), a jewelry maker, horse trainer, former member of the Olympic judo team and great-grandson of Black Horse, who fought on the winning side at the Battle of Little Bighorn and whose fierce-looking battle knife hangs on the wall of Campbell's House office.
Campbell remembers when he was sworn in with the congressional class of 1987. He looked around and saw Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.) -- son of a senator, nephew of another senator and a president -- and John Lewis (D-Ga.), who was arrested and beaten countless times during his days as a civil rights activist. The three of us, Campbell thought proudly, represent a pretty wide slice of America.
The House, unlike the Senate, has five non-voting members from far-flung corners of the American empire -- such exotic places as the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa and the District of Columbia. The delegate from American Samoa is Eni F.H. Faleomavaega, who can be seen performing a Polynesian dance in the Elvis Presley movie "Paradise, Hawaiian Style" and who has an elaborate tattoo that goes from his navel to his knees -- a tattoo created when needles made from the tusks of wild boars were hammered into his flesh over 12 excruciatingly painful days in a ritual that was designed to teach Samoan men to appreciate the pain of childbirth.
No one in the Senate has anything that can match it.
The House, like the rest of America, suffers from a plague of lawyers -- more than 180 of them -- and at least one self-proclaimed non-lawyer. "I am not a lawyer," Fred Grandy (R-Iowa) once announced on the House floor. "If God is good, I will never be a lawyer." Grandy, who played Gopher on "The Love Boat," is one of two former TV sitcom stars in the House, the other being Ben Jones (D-Ga.), who played Cooter on "The Dukes of Hazzard." The House is also the home of three former talk show hosts, three public relations consultants, several real estate salesmen, a car dealer, three sheriffs, a riverboat captain, a psychiatrist, two preachers (one of them currently under indictment), a beer distributor, two former pro basketball players, one former big league pitcher, one ex-boxer and Charles Hayes (D-Ill.), who once labored in the pork department of a Chicago slaughterhouse and has thus witnessed both of the sights that the old American proverb warns against watching -- the making of sausage and the making of laws.
Demographically, the House of Representatives is hardly representative of America -- it is whiter, richer, older and maler than the rest of the country -- but in some odd, idiosyncratic way, its disparate membership reflects some of the quirkier psychic corners of this grand and goofy land.
Gun nuts? Charlie Wilson (D-Tex.) has a gun collection that includes a Soviet grenade launcher, a Soviet submachine gun, an Israeli Galil assault rifle, an American M-16, a British Enfield rifle, a .44 Winchester rifle and two AK-47s -- not to mention the gripstock of a Stinger missile, which hangs on the wall of his House office.
Homosexuals? Barney Frank (D-Mass.) hired a male prostitute based on a newspaper ad that read: "Hot bottom plus large endowment equals good time."
Homophobes? William Dannemeyer took to the House floor to denounce gays in a speech that contained a rather graphic section titled "What Homosexuals Do."
New Age proselytizers? Claudine Schneider (R-R.I.) appeared in a half-hour TV commercial endorsing a $179.95 self-help audiotape called "Personal Power."
Ex-drunks? Ben Jones was arrested at least 10 times during the wild days before he stopped drinking 13 years ago.
Rap artists? Major Owens (D-N.Y.) composes rap songs on the major issues of the day, including one called "The Budget Summit" that begins like this:
In the big white D.C. mansion
There's a meeting of the mob
And the question on the table
Is which beggars they will rob . . .
"We do reflect the American public," says Tom Downey (D-N.Y.). "We have a lot of dolts here, but there are also a lot of very capable people. We reflect the good and the bad of the American public."
"Truly," agrees Faleomavaega, "the House does reflect what America is about."
As he says this, he's sitting in his House office in his white shirt and tie, with his big bare feet propped up on his coffee table. Part 4: THE ONE-MINUTE ORATORS
Jim Traficant stood at the House lectern, bellowing angrily and gesticulating wildly.
That wasn't unusual. Traficant (D-Ohio) bellows angrily and gesticulates wildly almost every morning, during the period when the House recognizes any member who wants to give a one-minute speech. Traficant is Congress's answer to Howard Beale, the "mad prophet of the airwaves" in the movie "Network." Nearly every morning, Traficant has something he wants to get off his polyester-clad chest. On the morning of August 3 -- the day after the invasion of Kuwait -- Traficant was outraged that a former member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had announced that America didn't have the capability to react militarily in the Persian Gulf.
"Now I want my colleagues to think about that," Traficant said indignantly. "After spending trillions of dollars on Star Wars and war games, Congress may be forced to send in the Capitol Police -- and they are underpaid."
That got a laugh, but Traficant wasn't through yet. "I say to my colleagues, let's face it, maybe we can hire generals a hell of a lot cheaper from Korea . . ." By this time, he was flailing his arms like a drunk fighting a mosquito. "Let's start using that trillion-dollar budget before we have to drive to Iraq to buy a gallon of gas!"
Traficant lumbered off, and Robert Dornan (R-Calif.) stepped to the lectern, carrying a couple of props. As he made the routine request for permission to "revise and extend" his remarks, Dornan, a former actor and TV talk show host, started flailing his arms and bellowing in an uncanny imitation of Traficant. That too got a laugh.
"My colleagues," Dornan said, "in Ashqelon, just within the last week, they found the golden calf, the idol that the heretics worshiped. What we are worshiping in this country today, unfortunately, is the god Baal. They fed him children. They threw them into the fire."
Dornan was talking about one of his favorite topics -- abortion. He showed some Life magazine photographs of fetuses, then held up a model of a 12-week-old fetus. "Call it Michelle, call it Michael," he said, and then he made his colleagues an offer: "Come up and ask me about it," he said. "I will let you touch it and handle it."
As he left the lectern, Dornan dropped something. It was only the model's carrying case, but some House members thought it was Michelle or Michael, and they started hooting and jeering, and somebody yelled, "You killed it!"
Ah, another morning of stimulating debate in the House of Representatives.
And that wasn't all. There were other one-minute speeches. Silvio Conte (R-Mass.) urged House members to forgo their summer vacation, turn off the House air conditioners and sweat out a budget. Andy Jacobs complained that he was misquoted in The Washington Post. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) denounced the rise in the price of infant formula. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) denounced the specter of a tax increase and concluded with the immortal lines: "Read my lips. No new taxes." House Minority Leader Robert Michel (R-Ill.) denounced Fortney "Pete" Stark (D-Calif.), who had been quoted in the newspaper calling Louis Sullivan, the black secretary of health and human services, "a disgrace to his race." Then Stark, who is white, got up and apologized to Sullivan -- sort of. He started out apologizing: "To the secretary, I have to say I blew it; I should not have brought into the discussion his race" -- but then he turned on an oratorical dime and his apology abruptly became an attack -- "because it obscures the fact that he is carrying a bankrupt policy for an administration which has been impacting the poor and the minorities of this country by denying them decent medical care . . ." He went on in that vein, whacking the administration's policies toward minorities, then concluded: "And I apologize for obscuring that."
Whew! All that -- and much, much more -- within just half an hour!
Bob Dornan likes to compare the House's one-minute speeches to radio call-in shows. Both serve as a "steam pressure release valve," he says, for people who "want to scream out." Both also tend to attract obsessives. Helen Delich Bentley (R-Md.) likes to use one-minutes to bash Japan. Bob Walker (R-Pa.) likes to use them to bash House Democrats. Frank Annunzio (D-Ill.) -- a powerful member of the House Banking Committee, which failed to prevent the multi-mega-billion-dollar savings-and-loan debacle -- rises almost daily to demand the jailing of "S&L crooks." Dornan denounces abortion and defends the B-1 bomber. And Traficant denounces the big shots who are "screwing" -- his favorite word -- the little guys of this world.
Some House members, like Downey, see the one-minutes as mere grandstanding for the TV cameras. Schroeder disagrees. Before the House was televised, she says, one-minutes tended to be recitations of a constituent's recipe for pickles or chocolate chip cookies. They may be less practical now, she says, but they're a lot more fun: "I love them. Can you think of anyplace else where you can see a debate between Traficant and Dornan?"
Occasionally, a one-minute speech can inspire poetry. Last June, on the eve of Nelson Mandela's address to a joint session of Congress, Dannemeyer delivered a one-minute attack on the African National Congress leader. "Nelson Mandela is no Martin Luther King," he said. "He is more like H. Rap Brown or Willie Horton . . ."
That enraged Major Owens, the House's unofficial rap poet laureate, who banged out an angry attack on Dannemeyer and inserted it into the Congressional Record:
. . . Fascist go home!
For you the House chamber
Is nowhere to roam.
Let's put all Nazis to bed,
Let's make Hitler real dead.
Go tell the headline-hunting scavenger
That Willie Horton is more like his mama! Part 5: IN THE DECADE OF THE BRAIN
Hochbrueckner and Hammerschmidt, Gonzalez and Martinez, Kleczka and Mrazek, Levin and Levine, Kennedy and Kennelly, Fazio and DeFazio -- the roll call of the House reflects the great ethnic stew that simmers in America's melting pot.
The House roster is also a lyrical compendium of great American names that roll off the tongue like poetry: Schaefer and Scheuer and Schneider and Schroeder. Baker and Boxer and Archer and Hunter. Horton and Houghton and Hoyer and Hughes. Brooks and Boggs and Fields and Wheat. Slaughter and Savage and Pickle and Fish. Green and Gray and Brown and Clay. Hatcher and Natcher and Bonior and Conyers. Harris and Parris, Mazzoli and Foley. And Smith and Smith and Smith and Smith and Smith and Smith and Smith and Smith and Smith.
Nine Smiths in the House of Representatives: What could be more American than that?
Congressman Tom Sawyer, that's what.
Thomas C. Sawyer (D-Ohio) serves an important function in the House. As chairman of the Post Office and Civil Service Committee's subcommittee on census and population, it is his responsibility to rise on the House floor during lulls in the action and ask unanimous consent to pass the resolutions that carve America's calendar into a quilt of tributes to various causes, professions, ethnic groups, art forms and battles against dread diseases.
It happens like this: When the sponsor of the resolution has collected 218 cosponsors -- in other words, a majority of the House -- Sawyer rises to say, as he did on May 25, 1989, "Mr. Speaker, I ask unanimous consent that the Committee on Post Office and Civil Service be discharged from further consideration of the joint resolution to designate May 25, 1989 as National Tap Dance Day and ask for its immediate consideration." And then the speaker asks if there are any objections, and Tom Ridge (R-Pa.), the ranking Republican on Sawyer's subcommittee, rises and introduces the sponsor of the resolution. In this case it was John Conyers (D-Mich.), who proceeded to praise it as "one of the most significant resolutions that I have been able to bring forward to this body in the 101st session of the Congress."
This is the ritual that gave America Children's Day, Senior Citizens Day, German-American Day, Arab-American Day, Ducks and Wetlands Day, Patient Account Management Day, Federal Employees Recognition Week, Organ and Tissue Donors Awareness Week, Correctional Officers Week, Give Kids a Fighting Chance Week, Quality Month, Digestive Disease Awareness Month, Irish-American Heritage Month, Italian-American Heritage and Cultural Month, and Take Pride in America Month, among many others.
Not to mention the Decade of the Brain.
These resolutions probably don't have a profound impact on the republic, but they do give House members an excuse to praise some constituents in the pages of the Congressional Record. On May 16, for example, Chester Atkins (D-Mass.) inserted an undelivered speech into the Congressional Record. "Mr. Speaker," it began, "I rise today on the occasion of National Police Week to pay tribute to the Littleton Police Department for their dedicated and outstanding service . . ."
On the same day, Atkins also inserted into the Record identical undelivered speeches in praise of the police departments of Boxborough, Dracut, Pepperell, Lowell, Dunstable, Tyngsboro . . . and every other police department in his district, each of them, it turns out, equally "dedicated and outstanding." Part 6: THE RHETORIC BAZAAR
When President Bush finished addressing the joint session of Congress on the subject of Iraq, the members rose totheir feet and gave him a rousing ovation. Then they hustled out of the House chamber and scooted to Statuary Hall, where the really important events of the night were occurring: their TV interviews.
After every presidential address, Statuary Hall is packed with TV cameras -- 21 of them on this particular night -- all of them eager for quotes from their local pols. The pols, needless to say, are equally eager. They hustle into the hall and line up like schoolchildren, fussing with their hair and waiting to go on-air, while the room echoes with the cacophony of pontification.
"It's sort of like a rhetoric bazaar," said Ben Jones as he gazed at the chaos around him.
"It's like the Easter egg hunt," said John Lewis.
Jones and Lewis were standing in line, waiting to be interviewed by three camera crews from Georgia. "The first question," said Jones, "is always, 'What did you think of the president's speech?' " Then he rolled up a piece of paper and held it up to Lewis's lips. "What did you think of the president's speech?" he asked.
Up ahead of them on line, Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) was not laughing. He looked very serious. He was facing a terrible dilemma: A reporter from PBS's "Nightly Business Report" had asked him for an interview. Which was fine: Gingrich never met a TV camera he didn't want to talk to. But to do this interview he would have to move to another place, which would cost him his spot in line. He looked at his feet, which were occupying that spot. He frowned, furrowed his brow in thought, and finally referred the reporter to his press secretary, Sheila Ward.
"Talk to Sheila," he said. "I stand where she tells me to stand."
Like most Americans, most House members love being on TV. Unlike most Americans, though, they don't have to paint their chests and strip off their shirts at sub-freezing football games to get on the tube. House members have their own taxpayer-financed TV studio, where they can record their wisdom and beam it via satellite to the folks back home. They also have a studio where they hold press conferences while standing in front of a bookcase filled with serious-looking books, including the Holy Bible. The books give the representatives an air of intellectuality -- unless you happen to notice that the bookcase is only a few inches deep and consequently all the books, including the Holy Bible, have been sliced off a couple of inches from the binding.
Like contestants on "Let's Make a Deal," House members sometimes use weird props to attract the TV cameras. Helen Delich Bentley once demonstrated her displeasure with the Toshiba Corp. by smashing a Toshiba TV with a sledgehammer while the cameras churned. Silvio Conte once wore a Miss Piggy mask to a press conference at which he denounced a pork barrel bill: "The congressmen have their nostrils right in the trough," he said, "and they're slurping it up for their districts at the expense of all the taxpayers."
During the House debate over the proposed constitutional amendment to outlaw flag desecration, Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) pulled out an American flag bathing suit. "Is that desecration?" he asked. He also produced a flag scarf, flag socks, flag pantyhose, flag napkins, flag slippers and flag paper plates. "If you put your spaghetti on them, have you violated the Constitution?" he asked. "And what do you do when you're finished with them?"
Some props don't work quite so well, though. Last spring, after President Bush blithely abandoned his "no new taxes" pledge, House Minority Leader Bob Michel and several other Republicans appeared before the cameras carrying a chain saw with the blade covered by a piece of paper that read "SPENDING." The idea, of course, was that they thought Congress should cut spending instead of raise taxes. Unfortunately, although the chain saw produced plenty of sound and fury, it failed to cut the paper.
Which was, come to think of it, a brilliant metaphor for Congress's chronic inability to cut spending. Part 7: BACKSLAPPING AND BEGETTING
It's true: House members really do slap each other on the back. They also shake hands a lot and throw their arms over each other's shoulders and refer to each other as "the distinguished gentleman" and "my esteemed colleague." Sometimes they go a tad overboard with this, like the time William Hughes (D-N.J.) referred to E. Clay Shaw Jr. (R-Fla.) as "my distinguished colleague from Florida, whom I love."
When the bells go off around Capitol Hill, indicating a vote, the representatives hustle to the House floor, stick their cards into the machines that record the votes and then start wandering around, shaking hands, slapping backs and schmoozing. Votes are supposed to take 15 minutes, but they inevitably take longer because nobody wants to stop shooting the breeze -- except Charles Hayes, who inevitably starts yelling, "Regular order! Regular order!" His colleagues ignore him, just as they ignore the speaker pro tempore when he starts banging the gavel and calling for order. They're a sociable crew.
In a lot of ways, the House is like a small town. Everybody knows everybody else and there are a lot of little cliques. Members hang out with other members from their state, or from their committees, or the members they eat dinner with every Tuesday night. Some members share apartments in Washington, some travel back home together, some campaign for each other, some vacation at each other's houses. The House is a chummy place, a nice place to work, a way of life you'd like to pass on to your children. And many members do:
John J. Duncan Sr. (R-Tenn.) begat John J. Duncan Jr. (R-Tenn.).
Andrew Jacobs Sr. (D-Ind.) begat Andrew Jacobs Jr. (D-Ind.).
John D. Dingell Sr. (D-Mich.) begat John D. Dingell Jr. (D-Mich.).
John J. Rhodes (R-Ariz.) begat John J. Rhodes III (R-Ariz.).
Carl D. Perkins (D-Ky.) begat Carl C. Perkins (D-Ky.).
Guy Molinari (R-N.Y.) begat Susan Molinari (R-N.Y.).
Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr. (D-Md.) begat Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Hamilton Fish (R-N.Y.) begat Hamilton Fish Sr. (R-N.Y.), who begat Hamilton Fish Jr. (R-N.Y.).
And Thomas Luken (D-Ohio), who is retiring this year, begat Charles Luken, who is the Democratic candidate for his House seat.
Then there's the amazing Byron dynasty. Rep. William D. Byron (D-Md.) died in a plane crash in 1941 and his wife, Katherine E. Byron (D-Md.), won election to serve out his unexpired term. William and Katherine begat Goodloe E. Byron Sr. (D-Md.), who was elected to the House in 1970 and died while jogging in 1978. He was succeeded by his wife, Beverly Byron (D-Md.), who still holds the seat. Beverly and Goodloe Sr. begat Goodloe E. Byron Jr., who recently ran for the state Senate. And lost. But he's still a local Democratic leader, and very few people would be surprised if he someday succeeded his mother, father, grandmother and grandfather in the House.
In the 202-year history of Congress, there has been only one marriage between House members, probably due to the paucity of congresswomen. In 1976, Andy Jacobs (D-Ind.) married Martha Keys (then D-Kan.). They'd met on the Ways and Means Committee, and their romance blossomed on plane rides home. "TWA served Indianapolis and Kansas City on the same flight," Jacobs says. "It was like being on the same bus line."
Their coalition proved to be a temporary one, alas, and they divorced in 1981 without begetting anybody.
Part 8: THE BATTLE OF $19.90
The now-famous fight over the now-deceased budget-summit package was not the first fiscal battle in the House this year. Far from it.
Congress has the solemn constitutional responsibility for raising and spending the government's money; last year, for example, it raised $1,123,000,000,000 and spent $1,355,000,000,000. Such a solemn constitutional responsibility quite frequently results in a lot of silly squab- bling in the House. On July 18, for example, Bob Walker rose to offer an amendment to cut the agriculture appropriations bill by 0.0000000002 percent.
"In total," Walker announced, "this amendment will cut $19.90 from the $50 billion appropriation."
Walker's fellow Republicans laughed and cheered. The Democrats hooted and hissed.
Nobody bothered to check Walker's math. But then again, the bill wasn't really about $19.90 anyway. It was part of House members' continuing effort to pass the hot potato of blame for the deficit to the other party. The previous day, the Republicans had pushed for a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget -- an idea supported by Ronald Reagan and George Bush, two Republican presidents who have never submitted a balanced budget to Congress. The amendment was defeated in the House, but not before scads of Democrats rose to say that the real way to balance the budget was for the House to vote for sensible spending cuts. But that was yesterday, and this was today, and the Democrats had defeated bills to cut the agriculture appropriations bill by 7 percent, by 5 percent, by 2 percent. Now, Walker's tongue-in-cheek amendment was designed to show that Democrats wouldn't even cut a lousy 20 bucks out of the bill.
"This amendment will be an across-the-board cut," Walker said, "and I have to tell members, it will hurt . . . There are several major programs under this amendment that may be cut by a dollar or more."
He was being sarcastic, of course, but several Democrats rose to attack the amendment as if it were a serious threat to the republic.
"Mr. Chairman, I take a back seat to no one in trying to have a balanced budget," said Jamie Whitten (D-Miss.), the ancient chairman of the Appropriations Committee, "but I do not believe in doing it at the expense of programs that are absolutely essential to the well-being of the American people."
Cardiss Collins (D-Ill.) took another tack. She rose and offered to pay the $20 out of her own pocket. Walker declined the offer.
"Vote!" the Democrats bellowed. "Vote!"
"The gentleman from Pennsylvania purports to save $19.90," said Dennis Eckart (D-Ohio), "but I would like to point out to my colleague that it costs $480 to print a page in the Congressional Record. So far, the gentleman is saving the taxpayers $20 but costing them $480."
Several $480 pages of debate later, Mickey Edwards (R-Okla.) used the same argument against the Democrats: "I would just like to point out to my colleagues across the aisle how much money they have spent desperately trying to prevent a $19 cut."
At that point, Timothy Penny (D-Minn.) asked Walker to withdraw the amendment. "If we proceed to a recorded vote, we will spend far more to print that vote in the Record than this amendment would save."
But Walker declined to withdraw the amendment, and he did indeed demand a recorded vote, which resulted in a 214-175 defeat, and which took about half of a $480 page to print.
Then the Democrats came up with their own potato-passing vehicle: a bill requiring the president -- who happens to be a Republican -- to submit a balanced budget to Congress. It passed 251-173, but has gone nowhere in the Senate. Part 9: THE GYM COMMITTEE, AMONG OTHERS
The House of Representatives is a highly competitive place, and one area of the most intense competition these days is, of course, leg lifts. Nobody's sure exactly how this competition started, but Tom Downey figures that one of the denizens of the House gym must have been bragging about how many leg lifts he'd done, and pretty soon there was an intense competition going, complete with a chart on the wall for members to record their daily leg-lift tallies.
"If you want to start a competition," Downey says, "all you have to do is tell a few people what you did. It's as close to college as you can get in that sort of thing."
In the old days, stories of male bonding in the overwhelmingly male House of Representatives tended to involve bourbon bottles and poker games and rooms full of cigar smoke. These days, they involve leg lifts and basketball games and rooms full of weights. "It's more of a jockocracy now," says Patricia Schroeder, a veteran observer of male culture in the House. "There's kind of a golf caucus and a basketball caucus and a tennis caucus." Not to mention the weight-lifting caucus, the pool caucus, the karate caucus, and, in the women's gym, the treadmill caucus and exercycle caucus.
Downey is an avid "gym rat," one of about 30 House members who play basketball almost every afternoon. "The games are played as if we were win- ning money at the end," he says. "I mean, people get killed going to the hoop."
That hoop is the hard-won trophy of a generational battle in the House. When Downey, one of the House's Watergate babies, arrived in 1975, the hoop was mounted right on the wall, which tended to inhibit a member's ability to drive in for a layup. The older House members never cared much about layups. They spent most of their gym time lying down under sun lamps, cooking themselves to a pre-cancerous glow while snoozing in a room full of beds. But the younger generation of House members was more interested in aerobic exercise than in power napping. Soon they were using their political savvy and their growing clout to pressure the House Gym Committee to move the backboard out on the court and to turn the old tanning parlor into a weight room, where they now do their competitive leg-lifting.
"The speaker said that he had more requests to be on the Gym Committee," Downey says, "than he had to get on the Intelligence Committee."
Wait a minute. The Gym Committee?
Of course. The House has committees and subcommittees and task forces and caucuses for just about everything. Like most Americans, House members are great joiners. They embody Alexis de Tocqueville's observation that "Ameri- cans of all ages, all conditions and all dispositions constantly form associations." This urge to join might explain why 49 white House members became associate members of the Black Caucus, why 64 non-Hispanic House members became associate members of the Hispanic caucus and why 119 male House members joined the Women's Caucus, which is now known as the Caucus for Women's Issues.
The House has 27 official committees, which encompass no fewer than 139 subcommittees and 11 task forces. Consequently, just about every House member with any seniority whatsoever gets to be the chairman of something -- except the Republicans, of course. Outnumbered 258-176, House Republicans never get the psychic thrill of being addressed as "Mr. Chairman." Maybe that's why they get cranky and offer amendments to cut $19.90 out of $50 billion appropriations. Of course, the Republicans do have their own party-run committees, four of them, including the poetically titled Committee on Committees.
One of the perks of being chairman of a big, important committee, such as Ways and Means, is that an artist is hired to immortalize your countenance in an oil painting. This is one kind of government-sponsored art that is not controversial in Congress, but perhaps ought to be. When the painting is completed, it is hung in the committee's room, in a rogues gallery of previous chairmen. Often, there's an official unveiling ceremony, which is often quite solemn: "It's like going to church," says Andy Jacobs.
Jacobs vividly remembers one such ceremony about a decade ago, when the portrait of Al Ullman, then chairman of Ways and Means, was unveiled. Jacobs, a member of the committee, arrived early and got a sneak preview of the painting, which portrayed the chairman "with a wild look in his eye," Jacobs says, "and a halo of light surrounding his head." Jacobs possesses an impish sense of humor and he was suddenly seized with a strange compulsion. He started going through the pile of official programs and adding the phrase: "A Portrait of Dorian Who?"
"Poor Al," he says, "it was unfair of me." Then he bursts out laughing. Part 10: SADDAM AND LEONA
Like most Americans, House members were irate, aghast and incensed at the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Unlike most Americans, House members could actually do something about the invasion -- namely, send out press releases and make angry one-minute speeches in the House. Which they did, in great profusion.
Some of the one-minute speeches were particularly memorable. Bob Dornan announced that the invasion had caused him to change his nickname from "B-1 Bob" to "B-2 Bob," in honor of the bomber he thought might make a good weapon in the Persian Gulf. Jacobs expressed skepticism about Operation Desert Shield: "Uncle Sam is in Saudi Arabia to defend everything he does not believe in and one thing he wants." Pat Schroeder denounced the idea that "the world thinks all they have to do is dial 1-800-USA and we come free of charge." And William Broomfield (R-Mich.) denounced Sad- dam Hussein: "He has stuck his thumb in our eye. I say we should break his arm."
Several House members used the invasion as an opportunity to take a verbal whack at their favorite targets. Like liberals: "The Kuwaiti ambassador is serving crow over in the Kuwaiti Embassy right now," Dornan said. "I hope some of my liberal colleagues have the common decency to eat a little of it." Or Japan: "The Japanese have been acting totally the way they usually do," said Carroll Hubbard (D-Ky.). "If there's no profit in it for Japan, forget it." Or environmentalists: "The greenies have led us into the crisis in the Middle East," said Tom DeLay (R-Tex.). ". . . The rabid environmentalists felt it was more important to jeopardize the lives of our brave American servicemen than risk the death of a single snail darter."
Jim Traficant -- the Babe Ruth of the one-minute speech -- rose on the House floor to read an anti-Saddam advertisement that Leona Helmsley had taken out in the New York Times: "Mr. Hussein, the people that you hold in your grasp are not guests, they are hostages." Traficant took that little nugget of information and ran with it. "I have a suggestion," he said. "I recommend to the president that he send both Leona Helmsley and Judge David Souter to the Gulf. After Judge David Souter completely confuses Saddam Hussein, Leona Helmsley can get close enough to maybe kick him in the crotch and end this thing."
But House members did more than just talk about the Gulf crisis, of course. They also took action. On September 14, Charles Hayes rose to urge the House to pass a bill granting free mailing privileges to American troops in Saudi Arabia. The idea proved popular, and member after member lauded it as "a good morale booster" and a "token of our esteem for our armed forces."
Then Tom Ridge (R-Pa.) rose with a motion to change the bill slightly: The troops would still get free mail, but it would be paid for, not by the Pentagon as in other wars, but out of Congress's "franking" fund, which pays for House members' mailings.
Needless to say, that kicked up some controversy. "It has always been paid out of the Defense Department," protested John Myers (R-Ind.). ". . . I urge this be defeated."
"This motion is completely out of order," said Hayes, "and we ought to vote it down."
And vote it down they did, 43-24. Then Ridge reminded his colleagues that they didn't have a quorum. So the vote was postponed until the following Monday.
By then, the Senate had passed its version of the bill, which authorized the Pentagon to pay for the postage. So the House members voted on the Senate bill, passed it 368-0 and sent it to the pres- ident. Then they took up Ridge's bill, safe in the knowledge that the issue was moot and their mail money was safe. It passed 227-142.
Part 11: CONGRESS R US
"Reader, suppose you were an idiot," wrote Mark Twain, "and suppose you were a member of Congress; but I repeat myself."
In the 1860s, Twain worked for a senator, then covered Congress for several newspapers. He was not impressed. "It could probably be shown by facts and figures," he wrote, "that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress."
Twain is just one in a long line of great American Congress-bashers, a tradition as old as Congress itself. Today, Congress-bashing is as popular as ever. The current Congress has drawn more flak than nearly any of its hundred predecessors, perhaps because of the budget debacle, or the ethics scandals, or the sex scandals, or the indictments, or the power of PAC money, or the pay raise fiasco. Or perhaps it has something to do with the various problems that Congress has failed to solve despite decades of posturing -- the deficit, the S&L crisis, homelessness, poverty, crime, drugs . . .
Whatever the cause, the result is an unprecedented outpouring of scorn: Business Week recently compared Congress to "the legislature of a banana republic." Ralph Nader attacked its "leadership by self-enriching sleights of hand." Former treasury secretary William Simon denounced it as "totally unwilling to halt its selfish indulgence." And author Philip Stern denounced it as a pawn of its contributors -- The Best Congress Money Can Buy.
Nobody's madder at Congress than Jack Gargan, a retired insurance man who founded an organization called "Throw the Hypocritical Rascals Out!" Gargan built his organization -- which now has more than 40,000 members, he says -- through a series of anti-Congress ads he has purchased in more than 60 newspapers across the country since June. The ads denounce the pay raise, the PAC money and the S&L scandal, among other issues, in paragraphs that begin with descriptions of Gargan's state of mind on these matters: "I'M APPALLED . . . I'M BITTER . . . I'M OUTRAGED . . . I'M ANGRY . . . I'M INCENSED . . . I'M LIVID . . . I'M EVEN MORE LIVID . . . I'M ENRAGED . . . I'M DISGUSTED . . . I'M FED UP . . . I'M SHOCKED . . . I'M REALLY HACKED- OFF . . ."
But not too hacked-off, apparently, to come up with a calm and rational solution to the problem: "VOTE EVERY INCUMBENT SENATOR AND CONGRESSMAN OUT OF OFFICE!"
That seems unlikely. Despite the perennial torrents of Congress-bashing, when Americans enter the sacred privacy of the voting booth, they generally choose to vote for the same House members they elected last time. It's a strange paradox: Although Congress's approval rating hovers down below 25 percent, the reelection rate of House incumbents is above 98 percent.
Why? The conventional wisdom points to the power of incumbency. House membership has its privileges, which pay off in a campaign -- the free mailings, the access to TV, the PAC money, the publicly paid staffers working on constituent services. All of which are, no doubt, potent factors. But the power of incumbency has obvious limits: When the voters get mad, really mad, incumbency is a liability. Just ask Jimmy Carter.
Perhaps there is another reason. Perhaps our representatives keep getting reelected because they are truly representative. Perhaps America, like the House, is a cacophonous collection of contentious characters -- gun nuts and gym rats, homosexuals and homophobes, ex-drunks and ex-jocks, big spenders and cheapskates, rap poets and one-minute blowhards, backslappers and leg-lifters, publicity hounds and shameless hams, gold standard theorists and the wise guys who mock them, talk show hosts and sitcom stars and lawyers and lawyers and lawyers and lawyers . . .
Perhaps they really are us.
Think about it: We Americans love getting federal benefits but we hate paying federal taxes. So we elect representatives who love funding federal programs but hate raising taxes. And then we blame the deficit on Congress.
Which is, by the way, exactly what members of Congress do too.
House members bash Congress at least as hard as Jack Gargan does. They too are appalled, bitter, outraged, angry, incensed, livid, disgusted, fed up, shocked and really hacked-off at Congress -- and they're not shy about saying it, either. In fact, some of America's best Congress-bashers are congressmen.
Groomed by the goofy give-and-take of House debate and the intellectual rigors of the one-minute speech, House members bash Congress with more pizazz than mere citizens. They use better metaphors too. In the last few months alone, House members have compared Congress to all sorts of nasty things:
Thieves: "Mr. Chairman, we are all thieves," said Bill Sarpalius (D-Tex.) during the debate over the balanced budget amendment. "If we were on trial today, we would be found guilty of stealing . . ."
The non-toilet-trained: "A tax-and- spend Congress acts a lot like feeding babies," said Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). "Irresponsibility on one end and no accountability on the other."
Zombies: During the debate on the textile tariff bill, Tom DeLay called the bill's backers "Zuppies -- Zombies Under Protectionist Influence" and described their symptoms: "They're walking around the halls of Congress with their eyeballs swirling, their knees locked and their arms out like this . . ."
Donald Duck: During the debate over flag desecration, David Obey looked around the House and said: "I see too many people who remind me more of Donald Duck than they do of Thomas Jefferson."
Dope fiends: "Money is a substance," said Dannemeyer, "and Congress is a substance abuser, an addict out of control . . ." Jim Traficant used another dope metaphor during a one-minute speech denouncing the horrors of raising the beer tax: "I think that members of Congress and the Cabinet should take a drug test. Everybody must be high for screwing this country up like they have."
And then, during the interminable battle over the deficit-reduction package, Silvio Conte turned Congress-bashing into poetry.
It happened just a few hours after that bizarre moment when Dannemeyer touted the gold standard and Neal Smith countered by touting the soybean standard. The House had finally begun debating a new budget plan around midnight, when October 7 became October 8, which just happened to be Columbus Day. That fact inspired Conte to write a poem.
Unlike Major Owens, the House's urban Democratic rap poet, Conte, a rural Republican, works in a more traditional poetic form. So he began his verse the same way the great American poet Anonymous began his most famous work:
In fourteen hundred ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
After hymning the heroism of Columbus and his crew, Conte contrasted their bravery with Congress's craven cowardice:
In nineteen ninety, here we are;
I don't think we have come so far.
We scream and boo and moan and hiss;
We don't have time to take a -- break.
We shout and jeer and fuss and bark;
We blame each other in the dark.
Although we've had five centuries,
We see no forest for the trees.
We're frightened by the interest groups;
We act like silly nincompoops . . .
When Conte finished, the objects of his scorn gave him a wild ovation. Say what you want about the House of Representatives, it does put on a good show.