In the year 2000, the US Congress achieved a level of Do-Nothingness so noteworthy that we decided to take note -- by instituting the Diddly Awards. In the Senate, Trent Lott occupied those days plotting tiny acts of revenge, while the House, under the Potemkin leadership of Dennis Hastert, produced not a single bill worth discussing. It was, after all, a Congress that mourned the death of Sonny Bono in 1998 as a blow to its intellectual gravitas.
Today's Congress is far more accomplished. The members passed an enormous tax cut in the teeth of a recession -- taking us from surplus to deficit so quickly that not even the talk-radio gasbags could convincingly pin the blame on our all-weather scapegoat, Bill Clinton. Then, of course, Congress responded to September 11 with the swift passage of the Patriot Act -- a retreat from the spirit of our Constitution so un-thought-out that it made Lincoln's wartime suspension of habeas corpus look positively democratic. In these efforts, and much more, our Congress has signed off on massive, tectonic legislation without so much as a moment's pause. One could easily argue that the return of the imperial presidency has less to do with Dick Cheney's powers of persuasion than with the doormat disposition of this Congress.
The Do-Nothing 106th Congress has passed its baton. All hail the Question-Nothing 107th Congress. Having abandoned its essential constitutional duty, this Congress has had lots of spare time to do, once again, diddly. The envelopes, please...
The Celebrity Mongering Award
Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) summoned Elmo, the Sesame Street character made of red felt, to the Capitol to testify on the importance of music education. Said one political analyst who witnessed the event, "Elmo has higher poll ratings than most members of Congress. They like to be in his reflective glory." At the end, the Muppet insisted, not altogether convincingly, "Elmo is not making a mockery of this place."
Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) complained to the media about having to talk to Chief Justice William Rehnquist at a White House dinner when Clint Eastwood was there. "I had my back to all the action," he noted.
Reps. George Gekas (R-Pa.) and Jim Greenwood (R-Pa.) conferred with 7-foot, 2-inch Philadelphia 76er Dikembe Mutombo to discuss health care. "We believe this is a gigantic first step," Gekas said.
Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) was mugging with Bono long before Paul O'Neill ever heard of the guy. Helms went to a U2 concert, turned off his hearing aid, and later offered anthropological notes on this new teenage craze called rock 'n' roll: "When Bono shook his hips, that crowd shook their hips...It was filled to the gills, and people were moving back and forth like corn in the breeze."
Donning a kilt, Lott also alerted the world to his Scottish heritage by inviting Sean Connery to join him in Scottish drag on the Capitol steps. Before the assembled throng, Lott cried out in his best Braveheart impression, "Freedom!"
The Family Values Award
Senator Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), who obviously had nothing to do with Bush's nomination of his son, David Bunning, 35, to be a federal judge -- even after the American Bar Association deemed the boy "not qualified."
Senator Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), who also had nothing to do with Bush's nomination of his son, Strom Thurmond Jr., 28 years old and three years out of law school, to be U.S. attorney for South Carolina.
Rep. Bud Shuster (R-Pa.), who supported his son Bill Shuster, a 41-year-old car dealer, to replace him in a special election in 2001.
He forced the Republican Party to bloat his son's campaign chest to $1 million. That was three times the amount gathered by the other fellow, who had no Congressional relatives. "This is about Bill Shuster," Bill Shuster insisted, "and Bill Shuster standing on his own two feet." Shuster won the election and is heading to D.C., where he can discuss his rugged individualism with FCC chair Michael Powell, son of Colin; Solicitor of the Labor Department Eugene Scalia, son of Antonin; Health and Human Services Inspector General Janet Rehnquist, daughter of William; and, of course, President George W. Bush.
The Common Touch Award
Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) screamed at three parking-lot security officers in Atlanta when his shuttle van was held up at the entrance. The most polite account alleges Barr yelled at one of the guards, "When are you going to open the gate, you stupid black idiot?" Another version says Barr called a guard a "nigger."
Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) left his car idling at an airport (post-9/11) and returned to find a cop, Sergeant Edward Stupka, writing a $15 ticket. Watts blew his lid, crammed the ticket behind Stupka's badge, and told him to "take care of it." "I could have been a terrorist carrying a bomb," Watts screamed, "and you would never have seen it!" He drove off after Stupka threw the ticket into his car. When called on his arrogance, Watts refused to apologize. His wife paid the fine.
Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) drove over a 13-year-old boy's foot just outside the Capitol in 2001 and then left the scene.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), whose voice can be heard on millions of his Viper car alarms shouting, "Stand back!" was stopped by Border Patrol for "driving 90 mph through an Interstate 5 construction zone at San Clemente." He insisted to the officer, "It's not your job to stop me for speeding."
In the annals of congressional arrogance, Barr is a repeat offender. In 1998, The New York Times reported an incident in which Barr slapped a female security guard at the airport, after which his wife summarized her view of airport security: "They were all from other countries, and they were talking about me in their language...I thought, 'Hey, this is my country.'"
The Class Clown Award
Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) publicly sang -- picture it -- "Who Let the Dogs Out?"
In a fundraising mailer, Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.) sent out "Jim Jeffords Barf Bags" to be used while contemplating the senator's "sickening...disgusting...treachery."
Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), accused of causing $28,000 of damage to a rented yacht on a Y2K booze cruise, later appeared at a political roast dressed in a sailor suit. Tough to the finish, the son of Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) capped off the evening by singing "Patrick the Sailor Man."
Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) brought up the rumor of Florida Governor Jeb Bush's affair with Katherine Harris. "I believe him," cracked Foley about Jeb's denials. "I mean, good God -- dating Katherine Harris? How would you get that makeup off your collar?"
At the same roast, the admitted former cokehead joked about Senator Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.), another admitted former cokehead: "Now when I hear someone talking about a Rhode Island politician whose father was a senator and who got to Washington on his family name, used cocaine, and wasn't very smart, I know there is only a 50-50 chance it's me."
The Sex in Congress Award
At the height of the Gary Condit imbroglio, Rep. Scott McInnis (R-Colo.) proposed a change in the House ethics manual -- forbidding all sex between Congresspersons and interns. "Right now you're allowed to engage in it," he said.
Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) was seen partying just days after 9/11 with Diana Davis, a 22-year-old House staffer. The 36-year-old bachelor came on to Davis saying he was an "auto parts salesman." Later, realizing she'd been misled, Davis emailed Weiner: "I'm assuming that selling auto parts...is only a part-time gig. My apologies if I offended you." Weiner quickly hit his reply button, writing, "Apologies like yours are best offered in person."
Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) was outed for having an affair with Deborah Steelman, a health care lobbyist who routinely had business with Thomas' health care committee and steered huge campaign gifts to Thomas' war chest. Steelman, now a vice president for Eli Lilly, did not deny the affair; rather, she was enraged that anyone would think having sex with Thomas gave her undue advantage: "To suggest I would stoop to an 'inappropriate relationship' to achieve legislative results is repugnant and sexist."
Thomas breathes new life into the phrase "in bed with industry." Despite the controversy surrounding the affair, Thomas went on to author the term's key Republican health care legislation.
The Dan Quayle Award
Rep. Mark Foley, the son of a public school teacher, wanted voters to know of his opposition to TPA, or Trade Promotion Authority. He released a statement denouncing the "PTA."
Senator John Breaux (D-La.) wrote a note during the stimulus package debate and pinned it to a Congressional elevator, reading "STIMULAS NEEDED!"
Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) pontificated last December on the need for yet another C.R., or "continuing resolution," whereby Congress avoids shutting down the government by borrowing a few hundred million more dollars. Despite gales of laughter from Congressfolk, he persisted in referring to the need for "CPR ."
Senator Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) denounced spending billions on Bush's space-based missile-defense system, saying, "This isn't rocket science here."
Stepping in from outside the ring, the former Senator never fails to win his own award. During the increase of violence in Israel, Quayle struggled to maintain a balanced attitude toward the Palestinians, asking, "How many Palestinians were on those airplanes on September 9? None."
The September 11 Demagoguery Award
Rep. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) suggested that a good strategy to combat terrorism would be to "arrest every Muslim that crosses the state line."
Senator Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) told NBC that Chelsea almost died in the World Trade Center collapse. Chelsea, meanwhile, was writing a piece explaining how she was in Manhattan but nowhere near the towers.
Rep. John Cooksey (R-La.) told a radio audience, right after 9/11, "If I see someone come in that's got a diaper on his head and a fan belt wrapped around the diaper on his head, that guy needs to be pulled over."
Freshman Rep. Brian Kerns (R-Ind.) told his hometown paper that he'd witnessed the disaster at the Pentagon: "I'm in shock. I thought it was strange that they were letting airplanes still fly after the World Trade Center. Then it was so low, and it just banked into the building. I still can't believe it."
An American Legion official recalled being in a meeting with Kerns during the attack. Confronted with his lie and asked to account where he really was during the attacks, Kerns ran away from the media, saying, "Who knows?"
MTV's Forgotten Music Award
Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) wrote a tune called "America Rocks," which formed part of the soundtrack to the movie Rat Race: "America rocks! America rocks! / From its busy, bustling cities, / To its quiet country walks, / It's totally cool, it's totally hot. / I mean, it's like right there at the top."
Senator Zell Miller (D-Ga.), concerned that "the pickup owners of this nation might get screwed in all this gas-guzzler talk about SUVs and vans," co-wrote, sang, and recorded "The Talking Pickup Truck Blues." The song goes in part: "I hear some news from Washington / Of a crackpot scheme to raise some mon. / It's an unkind way to raise a buck, / And it adds more cost to my pickup truck."
Rep. Joe Scarborough (R-Fla.) played guitar with his band Regular Joe and, prior to leaving office last September, was often heard singing the alt-rock tune "Teenage Dirtbag." It goes in part: "Oh, how she rocks in Keds and tube socks, / But she doesn't know who I am, / And she doesn't give a damn about me, / 'Cause I'm just a teenage dirtbag, baby." "I think I should get points for not doing Perry Como songs," said Scarborough.
Rep. Dick Armey (R-Texas) released a CD entitled Dick Armey's Favorite Hits. (No, seriously.) The album cover features the House majority leader atop a horse and includes such titles as "I'm Just an Old Chunk of Coal."
The second verse goes: "Sure, an SUV is classy travel, / But it ain't much good for haulin' gravel, / Or hay or seed or bovine feces. / So please, don't make my pickup truck an endangered species."
The Talk Dirty to Me Award
Rep. Barbara Cubin (R-Wyo.) was talking policy with some donors when, in stunning non sequitur fashion, she announced, "I know what Victoria's Secret is. She's a slut."
John Breaux, having been named an honorary "coxswain" of the U.S. Coast Guard, was traveling with a New Republic reporter and couldn't stop entertaining himself. "Hey! Look at this -- I'm a cocks'n!" Breaux said. "Does my wife know?" Passing a Hooters restaurant, he said, "Hey! Maybe I should get a job there, since I'm a cocks'n!"
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) announced, after being told that time was short during a hearing with Secretary of State Colin Powell, "My press release will read, 'Ros-Lehtinen does quickie with Secretary Powell...' I'm ready!"
She arrived in Congress already famous in Wyoming for passing around penis-shaped cookies to her male colleagues in the state legislature, which she later explained by saying, "People sometimes do things that they wouldn't do in front of their mother." Then, during the Florida recount battle, she screamed in a meeting, "We are bending over and taking it from the Democrats!" When some of her colleagues were alarmed by the rather un-family-values-esque image, she snapped, "Quiet down or you'll get a spanking."
The Man Behind The Curtain Award
Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) was summoned by Barbra Streisand to the coast to huddle with famous Hollywood political strategist Warren Beatty about the Democrats' postelection malaise. The House minority leader had to endure a "dramatic reading" of Babs' three-page memo, entitled "Nice Guys Finish Last," which the media struggled valiantly to quote witheringly, except that it's really, really boring.
Senator Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) sent out a fundraiser letter allegedly written by Thomas Towles. Towles is Bunning's 11-year-old grandson. "If you can, please include a special gift of $500, $250, $100, $50, or even $25, along with your signed card to help his campaign," wrote the child. "I know it would mean a lot to Grandpa."
Dennis Hastert held a press conference in front of a throng of hard-hat-wearing "working Americans" -- who were actually lobbyists in disguise.
This bit of street theater was intended to promote the trillion-dollar Bush tax cut as a boon for the working class. A memo from the National Association of Manufacturers gave denizens of Gucci Gulch their lunch-pail instructions: "The theme involves working Americans. Visually, this will involve a sea of hard hats, which our construction and contractor and building groups are working very hard to provide." In addition, "the Speaker's office was very clear in saying that they do not need people in suits. If people want to participate -- AND WE DO NEED BODIES -- they must be DRESSED DOWN, appear to be REAL WORKER types, etc." The Rank Hypocrisy Award
Orrin Hatch complained that the Democrats had confirmed only 28 right-wing judges in the first half of 2002. "Contrary to the widely held belief, the Republicans did not play such games when Bill Clinton was president," Hatch declared without being struck by lightning. When Hatch ran the Judiciary Committee in 1996, he confirmed 17 of Clinton's moderate appointments the whole year.
Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) called himself the "New Jersey Wen Ho Lee" after federal prosecutors dropped charges accusing him of receiving illegal funds from political patron David Chang -- who had reportedly given the Senator an $8,100 Rolex watch, 10 Italian suits, and a large-screen TV. Earlier, Torricelli had demagogued the Wen Ho Lee case, even causing Janet Reno to break down at one hearing when he demanded that Clinton fire her. Torricelli later insisted that he didn't understand how Chang got into a meeting he was having with Korea's finance minister. "I had no idea what this man was doing in the room," Torricelli explained through his teeth. "He showed up."
Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), who took money from Enron and then went on to denounce the company, complained when the cable news stations began flashing on-screen the amounts that politicians received from the bankrupt company. "People hate hypocrites," Tauzin observed.
Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) criticized Senator John Kerry for first serving (by all accounts heroically) in Vietnam before following his conscience to oppose the war. "If we had had the leadership of a George W. Bush back in the Vietnam War days," DeLay said of the president, who avoided the draft, "we probably would not have lost that war."
At the 1988 Republican National Convention, he defended his own absence in Vietnam in a bizarre statement that implicated affirmative action. According to a Houston Press reporter's summary, the argument went like this: "So many minority youths had volunteered for the well-paying military positions to escape poverty and the ghetto that there was literally no room for patriotic folks."
Jesse Helms retires this year among a bizarre bouquet of accolades. But, with his departure, it would be rude not to recall some of his pearls of wisdom, such as this gem from 1950: "White people, wake up before it is too late. Do you want Negroes working beside you, your wife, and your daughters, in your mills and factories?" In 1963 he said, "The Negro cannot count forever on the kind of restraint that's thus far left him free to clog the streets, disrupt traffic, and interfere with other men's rights." He regularly called the University of North Carolina "the University of Negroes and Communists." Spotting Senator Carol Moseley-Braun in the elevator in 1993, he bragged, "I'm going to make her cry. I'm going to sing 'Dixie' until she cries." But nothing quite matches a more recent appearance on CNN's Larry King Live. When a caller gushed over Helms for "everything you've done to help keep down the niggers," Helms, seized by a Dr. Strangelove moment, turned to the camera, saluted, and replied, "Well, thank you, I think."