The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Wednesday, August 28, 2002  

Is Congress Losing Its Punch?

Congress isn’t going to be as much fun anymore, reports Carl Hulse in today’s New York Times (“Departing Lawmakers Cost Congress Some of Its Dazzle”).

“No one knows which party will control the House or Senate after the November elections, but one result is in: already out are some of the more outrageous, outspoken and polarizing characters of Congress,” writes Hulse, in reference to departing House members Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.), Rep. Cynthia A. McKinney (D-Ga.), and Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. (D-Ohio).

“While some are happy to see them exit, former Senator Alan K. Simpson, a Republican from Wyoming who was known to deliver a potent punch line when in Congress, suggests there is a certain value in lawmakers who occasionally veer toward the outlandish,” Hulse reports.

According to Simpson, “When you have spirited people, whether you agree with them or not, it adds a little yeast to the dough. In your country club, your church and business, about 15 percent of the people are screwballs, lightweights and boobs and you would not want those people unrepresented in Congress.”

Heavens, no, we need the diversity, we need the variety, we need the entertainment value, and most of all we need “screwballs, lightweights, and boobs” drafting legislation, voting on measures affecting our health, wealth, and security, and determining whether the nation goes to war.

Hulse also notes the impending, ahem, passing on, of Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), and Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas (R-Texas) to their post-congressional careers.

Adding insult to injury, Hulse writes, “[T]he retiring senators have some degree of a larger-than-life quality and are partisans known for being formidable legislators.”

Yes, indeed, the Senate is losing three great statesmen, according to the Times.

Actually, while some may find cranky old bigots colorful and entertaining, others find them offensive and insulting, embarrassing even.

Pressing on, Hulse, in a desperate attempt to add an air of gravitas to his piece, adds, “The departure of these and other figures who capture public attention and stand the Capitol on its ear will discernibly alter the personalities of the House and Senate, lawmakers, analysts and historians agree.”

Perhaps, but that’s a tough argument to make with regard to Sen. Thurmond and Sen. Helms, charter members of the Capitol’s thriving “Theater of the Barely Living” contingent.

“[Sen.] Thurmond, who will turn 100 in December, has served longer in the Senate than anyone, ran for president as a third-party candidate in 1948 and filibustered a civil rights bill for more than 24 hours in 1957,” writes Hulse. “Now infirm, the life-long physical fitness advocate has to be helped by aides into the Senate office building. But after 48 years, he still casts his vote.”

Fascinating or pathetic?

“The combative [Sen.] Helms, who has been absent from the Senate for months because of health problems, was the architect of a personal foreign policy and a cagy [sic] opponent who was sometimes called Senator No.”

Determined or demented?

“[Sen.] Gramm was a master of procedure as well, using the rules to block initiatives he opposed while spouting Texasisms and driving his legislative foes batty,” writes Hulse. “‘He always had a good quip and talked about his momma and that guy down in Texas,’ said [Sen. John] Breaux [(D-La.)].”

Humorous or manipulative?

The revolving door has yet to spin out Sen. Gramm and the bodies of Sen. Thurmond and Sen. Helms are still warm, or at least lukewarm, and yet Hulse is pronouncing history’s early verdict, along with a little help from Prof. Merle Black of Emory University: “They were willing to stand up for unpopular causes for what they viewed as principled decisions.”

Yes, that’s it: Not just your everyday racism, principled racism.

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