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Sunday, October 22, 2006

America's Dumbest Congressmen

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Congress: Despite a notoriously compliant president and Republican majorities in both houses, they've spent over 600 days in session without conducting a shred of productive business, which is not to say they've just sat around. As the war in Iraq raged out of control, they futilely postured over an unconstitutional flag-burning amendment that was clearly destined to go up in flames. They rallied around the brain-dead Terry Schiavo after the Senate majority leader, watching her on television, claimed to detect signs of life. And their hijinks culminated this month with l'affaire Mark Foley, which raised the question of just who a guy needs to blow on the Hill to get the attention of the brain-dead House leadership.

But in a notably dumb year, perhaps the dumbest move came from Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell, who sponsored a bill seeking $20 million in taxpayer money for a party to celebrate America's victory in Iraq.

10. Senator Jim Bunning (R-KY)

Bunning is a Hall of Fame pitcher who, during his eight years in office, has shown "little interest in legislation that doesn't concern baseball," writes Time magazine. And Kentucky doesn't even have a major-league baseball team. His campaign style is so completely unhinged that political observers openly speculated in 2004 that the then-73-year-old was suffering from dementia or Alzheimer's. "His is a tragic case of descent into senility," says one Hill staffer, "except without the 'descent' bit." To scotch the rumors, Bunning was forced to hold a press conference and offer up doctor's reports.

Among his antics that year: Telling a group of GOP fundraisers that his Italian-American opponent, Daniel Mongiardo, physically resembled Saddam Hussein's sons, Uday and Qusay; referring on the stump to the tragic terror attacks of November 11, 2001; and adding a federal security detail to his campaign in the firm conviction that members of Al Qaeda—the masterminds of November 11—had targeted him for elimination. ("There may be strangers among us," he darkly informed a Paducah TV crew.)

The piece de resistance, though, was a debate with Mongiardo: Bunning notified event organizers at the eleventh hour that he was tied up with legislative business in Washington and would have to participate via satellite. During the event it was painfully obvious that the incumbent was delivering his debate points with the aid of a teleprompter, violating the event's ground rules. And whatever urgent business Bunning claimed to be in town for couldn't have had anything to do with his job—the Senate had gone into recess the previous Monday.

9. Representative Patrick Kennedy (D-RI)
This May, the tow-headed son of the ruddy senior senator from Massachusetts plowed his car into a barrier—and himself into infamy—while under the spell of an Ambien-fueled hallucination. He then attempted to convince Capitol police he was late for a floor vote at 3 o'clock in the morning. When the story broke, Kennedy played the recovery card, announcing that he suffered from depression and addiction—to sleep aids and painkillers—and would seek treatment at the Mayo Clinic. Twenty-four hours later the man who had barreled down D.C.'s power boulevards in a runaway Mustang convertible (with the lights off) presented himself as a role model: "I hope my openness today and in the past, and my acknowledgment that I need help, will give others the courage to get help, if they need it."

In 1988, during his maiden campaign for Rhode Island's state legislature, Kennedy was stumped when radio callers asked him for the location of his campaign headquarters. And once elected, he brandished his signature lucidity on the House floor, where he lamented middle-class America's inability to "make mends meet."

Despite a cameo appearance in the Palm Beach date-rape allegation that landed his cousin William in the tabloids, Kennedy handily won a House seat in 1994. So he had a few years to warm up for the Lewinsky hearings, which he likened to "pulling a fire alarm in a crowded room." He was ably prepared to comment, having developed a close familiarity with the Constitution: "I myself have educated myself about the severity of the Articles of Impeachment, and I want to share with my colleagues and the American people some of the thoughts that I have learned."

8. Senator Conrad Burns (R-MT)
Burns, Jack Abramoff"s favorite Senate bag man, raked in a cool $137,000 in tribal casino money for his political action committee, a congressional record. In exchange, he pushed through a $3 million earmark on behalf of the Saginaw Chippewas in the form of an education grant the wealthy tribe neither wanted nor needed. But in his current re-election campaign against Montana State Sen. John Tester, Burns reminded Big Sky voters why he was a civic embarrassment long before Abramoff came courting. One favorite was his reference, in an immigration speech, to the "nice little Guatemalan man" who does yardwork around his estate (the long-suffering Burns press office was forced to issue a follow-up statement clarifying the cute little brown fella's legal status).

Casting his myopic gaze toward terrorism this summer, Burns offered a helpful clue to law enforcement officials: Be wary of "faceless" Arabs who "drive taxicabs by day and kill at night." But this minor bit of sociological skylarking actually represents progress, of sorts, considering his 1999 outburst blaming "ragheads" for rising gas prices and additional episodes in 1994 in which he delivered a casual joke from the podium about "niggers" and told another audience that living in Washington with so many blacks "is quite a challenge."

But he saved some scorn for the working class, too. This summer, Burns incautiously told a team of firefighters who had been battling a raging Montana wildfire that they did a "piss poor job" and that one in particular "hadn't done a goddamned thing." He then wrote a public letter to governor Brian Schweitzer requesting that he declare a state of emergency. Schweitzer had done so 45 days earlier.

7. Representative Cynthia McKinney (D-GA)
With her famously bad hair and even worse manners, Cynthia McKinney has long cut a slightly ridiculous figure on Capitol Hill. But this year she went to new extremes. First there was her notorious encounter with a Capitol Hill police officer who dared to ask her for ID. After brazenly ignoring several polite requests, the caterwauling congresswoman responded by walloping the officer in the chest. During the ensuing fracas she complained that she was persecuted for "being in Congress while black." But what really cemented her position at No. 7 was her frivolous threat to sue the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for defamation over an editorial that decried her light record of legislative achievement. "She doesn't have the power or prestige to pass a resolution in favor of sweetened iced tea," the paper opined. McKinney fought back by proudly producing a survey that ranked her as the 277th most effective legislator in the House. In fact the survey, by, placed her at 408.

The embarrassing incident didn't end her absurd fatwa against the paper. When the Journal-Constitution published a poll showing her opponent in this year's primary with a commanding lead, McKinney went ballistic again. "We have notified them of their libelist [sic] writing," she said, darkly. A few days later she lost by 20 points. Now she's preparing another lawsuit charging that Johnson's runaway victory was the result of compromised voting machines.

Among the many constituencies that will welcome McKinney's departure are Atlanta's Jews: Her fractious relationship with the community dates back to 1992, when her father denounced her then opponent as a "racist Jew." Two years later, she refused to denounce the anti-Semitic rantings of a Farrakhan aide, and, in 2001, one of her own aides was forced to resign after calling congress an "Israel-occupied territory." When Rudy Giuliani returned a $10 million 9/11 donation from Saudi Prince Al-Waweed bin Talal, who blamed the attack on the U.S. relationship with Israel, McKinney took it upon herself to write a letter of apology to the prince. And at her concession speech in August, when a staffer was inadvertently struck by a microphone, McKinney supporters not only beat up the reporters on hand, they hurled gems like: "You know what led to this loss? Israel ... Zionists! Put your yarmulke on your head and celebrate." Oy.

6. Representative Jean Schmidt (R-OH)
"Mean" Jean Schmidt blazed her way into congressional history last year by using her first-ever floor speech to paint Rep. John Murtha, a decorated Marine Corps vet, as a coward, provoking a chorus of jeers and calls for her expulsion (for violating a longstanding rule against personal attacks from the floor.) Adding insult to injury, the Marine to whom she'd attributed the statement denied ever making it. Eventually, the red-faced rep was forced to apologize and begged for her witless remarks to be stricken from the Congressional Record.

But crass vet-baiting seems to be a conditioned reflex for Schmidt. In last spring's hard-fought special election campaign against Democrat Paul Hackett, an Iraq war vet, her staff publicly suggested that his combat record did not qualify him to hold office. Which is not to say she isn't above exploiting American soldiers for her own political benefit: Witness a recent debate with her GOP primary opponents to which Schmidt arrived 40 minutes late with the explanation that she had been comforting a dead Marine's family—and her cringe-worthy demand that the crowd then join hands in prayer.

Meanwhile, here's a taste of how she characterizes the mindset of Iraqi civilians. "The Iraqi's perception is that we're all powerful," Schmidt wrote in a recent newsletter, offering her thumbnail portrait of the noble savages. "We watch them from space with technology they cannot even imagine ... They know we can do anything." If only.

5. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA)
Boxer is a limousine liberal running a few gallons short of a full tank. After convening a Democratic press event at a gas station to publicize high oil prices and accuse Bush and Cheney of being too cozy with the oil industry, California's junior senator "hopped into a waiting Chrysler (18 MPG)," noted the Washington Post, "even though her Senate office was only a block away."

Then there are Bab's manglings of diction and logic, such as this chestnut: "Those who survived the San Francisco earthquake said, 'Thank God I'm still alive.' But of course those who died, their lives will never be the same again." Boxer's most egregious crimes against language are on florid display in her self-infatuated novel A Time to Run, which features a California senator embarking on a bold, maverick crusade to protect children from violence. One passage describes "a magical time when the three of them caught the rainbow, found the pot of gold beneath it, and managed to forget how easily and swiftly that fairy gold could slip away." And then there's the ghastly way Boxer envisions a lustful courtship: "Her skirt was very short, and Josh found himself mesmerized by her perfectly shaped, silken legs with kneecaps that reminded him of golden apples—he couldn't remember having been captivated by kneecaps before—and her lustrous thighs."

4. Representative J.D. Hayworth (R-AZ)

After a long tour as a Sunbelt TV sportscaster, Hayworth rode the 1994 Republican revolution into office, where he started things off by telling a group of environmental activists that untrammeled logging was a conservation measure because forests are a fire hazard. He distributed leaflets on the House floor accusing Maryland Democrat Steny Hoyer of promoting "sex training for federal employees," planning to indoctrinate them into drug use, and pushing New Age cult worship, all because of a proposal to extend health coverage for abortions under dire circumstances. And the amendment Hayworth was protesting so absurdly wasn't Hoyer's at all—it was actually the work of Hayworth's fellow Republican, Rep. Ron Packard of California.

Over the years, he racked up more than $150,000 from Jack Abramoff's clients, $64,520 in the last election cycle alone, second in the House only to Majority Leader Dennis Hastert. Alone among Congress members, though, Hayworth has refused to return any of the tainted funds, offering only this rationale: the donors don't want the money back.

Hayworth's dimness is so legendary on the Hill that one Arizona colleague told a reporter that he's a textbook example of the power of gerrymandering because of his continued ability to get re-elected despite saying "any foolish thing." Recently he put that thesis to the test, openly approving the nativist writings of the anti-Semitic auto baron Henry Ford and repeatedly mis-stating a reporter's first and last name during an interview. Of course, Hayworth is a strong supporter of "English only" bills, proving yet again the adage that those who can't do, legislate.

3. Senator James Inhofe (R-OK)
Inhofe is best known for his categorical claim that global warming is "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people"—a rhetorical flourish he recently refined by likening climate change theories to Nazi propaganda. And here's the scary part: Those are the sentiments of our chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee. It's a bit like making Lyndon LaRouche the American Ambassador to England.

But that's not the half of it. As far back as 1972, he called for Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern to be "hanged with Jane Fonda" for referring to alleged atrocities committed by American troops in Vietnam. In 2001, he took to the Senate floor to announce that Israel was justified in whatever treatment it handed out to Palestinians because, after all, God had promised the Jews the land they occupied. For good measure, he also called Palestinian terror bombers practitioners of "satanic evil," and intimated to the New Republic that both Bill and Hillary Clinton were out to assassinate him.

And then there was the recent debate over the latest constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, when Inhofe assured Senate colleagues of his own virility and that of his manly forbearers. "My wife and I have been married 47 years. We have 20 kids and grandkids. I'm really proud to say that in the recorded history of our family, we've never had a divorce or a homosexual relationship." It's the same flawless gene pool that produced a man who thinks our situation in Iraq is "nothing short of a miracle."

2. Representative Donald Young (R-AK)
The scene: Fairbanks, Alaska, 1994. Congressman Don Young, already in office for 20 years, is on the stump preaching the virtues of Newt Gingrich's Republican revolution to a group of high school students. Just look at all the wasteful things the federal government does with taxpayers' money, he tells them. The National Endowment for the Arts, for example, funds art involving "people doing offensive things ... things that are absolutely ridiculous." One student asks, "Like what?"

"Buttfucking," replies the great scourge of obscenity and instructor of youth.

Young's performance remains a classic in the annals of congressional idiocy, offering that rare, supremely unselfconscious moment in which one of our nation's legislative solons lets his addled mind graze freely. But the real irony of this legendary gaffe is that the congressman lecturing on government waste was the very same man who, years later, would be responsible for Alaska's fabled "Bridge to Nowhere," a $233 million project constructed entirely of pork. And it's the same man who, when asked about his state's outrageous $941 million transportation bill, boasted "I stuffed it like a turkey," before adding that detractors of the bridge—equal in length to the Golden Gate but connecting to a town with a population of 50—could "kiss my ear."

1.Representative Katherine Harris (R-FL)
If dumb Congress members were the X-Men, Harris would be their Wolverine—a mutant possessing fearsome skills, the product of a demented government experiment gone horribly wrong. Back in 2000, the then-Florida secretary of state thrust herself into the national spotlight by peremptorily calling the state for George W. Bush. Of course, the longtime crony of Bush's brother Jeb was also Florida's GOP campaign chair. Two years later, after she won her seat in the House, Harris wasted no time becoming a by-the-numbers culture warrior. But she really hit her stride on the campaign trail. Running for re-election in 2004, she told voters in Venice, Florida, that a "Middle Eastern" man had been arrested for trying to blow up the power grid of Carmel, Indiana. Neither the mayor of Carmel nor the governor of Indiana—nor anyone else acquainted with reality—had any idea what Harris was talking about.

Florida Republicans responded with sound skepticism when Harris put herself forward to face off against Democratic Senate incumbent Bill Nelson in 2006. But Harris was undaunted, allegedly telling campaign consultant Ed Rollins that God had asked her to run for Senate.

Nevertheless, the Supreme Being seems to have other plans for Florida Republicans—and especially for Harris's campaign team. Team Harris has hemorrhaged more than 25 senior staff and consultants, Rollins among them, over the past year. They rush for the exits every time there's a fresh report on Harris's shady dealing: her $2,800 dinner with MZM defense contractor (and Duke Cunningham's lubricator in chief) Mitchell Wade, who reportedly vowed to kick in $200,000 for a Harris fundraiser; her withdrawal of $100,000 from her campaign coffers to pay for repairs to her house; news that the FBI is collecting her campaign e-mails for review; and her decision to conceal from her lead staffer a federal subpoena concerning the abuses.

Need more? There was the surreal appearance on Hannity & Colmes during which Harris stood in profile for the entirety of her softball interview, seemingly intending to showcase her pronounced dé colletage to Fox News viewers. There was Harris's whisper campaign after the increasingly desperate state GOP reportedly approached former congressman and cable-host Joe Scarborough to run against her. Mainly, though, there's her Stalin-esque management style, which includes attacking staffers for such trespasses as procuring the wrong kind of candy, or for screwing up her Starbuck's order (extra-hot low-foam nonfat venti triple lattes with one packet of Sweet-n-Low). It's the sort of unhinged megalomania that makes us giddy. At one point, Harris's battered staffers tested her by submitting a two-month old speech she had written herself: She pronounced it "terrible." Unfortunately, early polls suggest our No. 1 pick won't be around to entertain us much longer. Enjoy her while you can.

Vote for Change in November - Less Nuts in Power.