When the House of Representatives expelled Jim Traficant (Ohio) in 2002, many Congressional insiders and observers wondered aloud whether the institution had lost its last truly outlandish character, the kind who can make floor debates captivating television and otherwise break the tedium of the ubiquitous vestige of the modern Congress — prepared remarks.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the conduct that eventually sent the ex-lawmaker to jail for racketeering, there remains a certain aura about Traficant. In an institution that seems to value conformity, the ability to speak well on TV and prolific fundraising above all else, he was the antidote.
“Traficant is almost sui generis. Who comes anywhere close to him?” asked Brookings Institution scholar Thomas Mann.
Traficant’s own version of fundraising — under-the-door kickbacks from his staff members’ salaries — eventually became his undoing. And Congress’ most visible character is now incarcerated.
But a closer look reveals the institution may have lost its ability to sustain a critical mass of jaw-dropping characters even before its most recognizable recent example was sent to a minimum-security federal prison.[IMGCAP(1)]
Just ask Rep. Barney Frank. The Massachusetts Democrat’s biting wit and sharp tongue make his floor speeches must-see viewing, something that makes him stand out from his colleagues.
“There are fewer and fewer of us here,” Frank said.
Frank is convinced that Congress has far fewer singular characters than it used to, and if they were around, he said, no one would notice.
Indulging individuality takes time, he asserted, and Congress just isn’t around as much. Spontaneity is lost on a Tuesday-through-Thursday Congress. To be called a “Tuesday-to-Thursday Congressman” used to be an insult, Frank said, but now Wednesday night is the only night most Members stay in town.
“Our work schedule has gotten so compressed. There used to be colorful debates on the floor,” Frank said. “Traficant tried, but I always thought that was artificial and forced. There has to be an element of spontaneity.”
The outward signs of being a “character” only come out when you get to know each other, he said, adding that lawmakers just don’t interact as much as they did even 20 or 30 years ago.
Those were the years of then-Rep. Dan Flood, who was known for his theatrical floor speeches. The Pennsylvania Democrat, who retired in 1980, literally brought the theater to Congress. A trained Shakespearean actor, Flood could make routine policy discussions the stuff of grand theater by using long, drawn-out syllables and changing inflection. The Appropriations cardinal frequently twirled his long, handlebar mustache during floor speeches for effect.
Flood even brought musical comedy to the floor when a Chicago-area lawmaker offered an amendment to an appropriations bill to bring federal dollars to his district. As former Rep. Andy Jacobs (D-Ind.) tells it, Flood went to the well of the House “and broke from tradition for the millionth time.” Right there, on the floor of the House, he did a soft-shoe and sang the lyrics to “Chicago (That Toddlin’ Town).”
Jacobs, a character in his own right, also likes to tell of how Flood once participated in a milking contest at a D.C. hotel between country and city lawmakers. Flood was quoted in The Washington Post the next morning telling the reporter that his cow had asked for his phone number.
“The stories are absolutely endless,” Jacobs said.
Jacobs also cited then-Rep. Silvio Conte, a Republican from Massachusetts who favored loud outfits and frequently “yelled to the rafters,” as Jacobs put it. One day, when Conte was wearing “a particularly flamboyant jacket,” Jacobs walked down to the well and asked Conte for “two vanillas,” implying, of course, that Conte was dressed like an ice-cream man.
“He never broke pace,” Jacobs recalled, and Conte even managed to work the gentleman’s request for two vanilla cones into his high-decibel floor speech.
There were others. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio). H.R. Gross (R-La.). “B-1” Bob Dornan (R-Calif.).
And then there was Jacobs himself, who once named his cars on his financial disclosure forms and had a 25th birthday for “Red Rascal,” complete with glasses of oil for toasts.
Just at the moment Jacobs began to believe that such characters aren’t around anymore he stopped himself and remembered an old Marine saying: “The Marine Corps isn’t what it used to be. In fact, it never was.”
So maybe they haven’t all gone. After all, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) still takes to the floor and weaves history of classical legislative bodies into tales of his late, beloved dog, Billy Byrd.
Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), aka “Dr. No,” still votes against almost every bill that comes to the floor on the grounds that it promotes too much government.
At the other end of the spectrum, Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) still loudly preaches his own brand of socialism on the floor of the House.
And then there’s Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), whose penchant for off-color remarks has sometimes landed him in trouble. Just a few years back, Burns walked off the floor, out the chamber and onto the Senate steps where he greeted a reporter by reaching into his coat pocket and, for no other reason than a seeming gesture of goodwill, handing the reporter a small bottle of Maker’s Mark.
More recently, Sen. Tom Coburn’s (R-Okla.) graphic lunchtime lesson to Senate staffers on the dangers of sexually transmitted disease may demonstrate that new characters are still bringing color to the institution, even if they are not arriving at the pace with which their predecessors are retiring.
“I am skeptical of the argument that their numbers are reduced, that somehow modern campaigning doesn’t allow them to get elected as it once did,” Mann said.
To the contrary, Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) said, “Sometimes that’s what makes them electable.”
Davis, who formally chaired the National Republican Congressional Committee, would know. He was the chief candidate recruiter for House Republicans for two campaign cycles.
He also concedes, however, that the more strict party discipline these days makes it more difficult to speak your mind once you get to Congress.
A Democratic strategist agreed.
“It’s still true that the more successful politicians have to find a way to connect their personality with the electorate,” the strategist said. “But caution is the watchword.
“You still have some yellers and screamers, but that’s just typical of the House side,” he added. Generally, folks are a lot less interesting. And even the more contemporary characters lack a certain gusto of the old-school Congressional nonconformists, whose “maverick qualities were not just verbal.”
“The reason these people are in our consciousness is that it is rare,” the strategist suggests.
But maybe, Mann points out, we just don’t pay as much attention to them.
“It’s still possible in this electoral environment for odd people to get elected,” Mann believes. “We have plenty of capacity for nonroutine behavior and rhetoric. We really do.”
But is that capacity being used? Do today’s Congressional characters rival those of 50 years ago?
Jacobs, for one, is unsure. “I think conformity is more the style these days. I think that’s the way the whole country is going.”
He hopes he is wrong. “You need some kid to say the emperor is a streaker,” Jacobs said. “Autocratic rule doesn’t come too far behind the expunging of mavericks in legislative bodies. They remind us to review our certitudes.”
Mann doesn’t think Traficant was that guy. “While he was a character, he was a destructive one in many respects,” Mann said.
But he agrees with Jacobs on the larger point.
“There are characters whose mission is to speak embarrassing truths as well as just being oddballs. Those are kind of helpful to have around.”