AMERICA’S DUMBEST CONGRESSMEN

Radar ranks the 10 biggest fools on the Hill

CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES The 109th Congress busy doing nothing

Congress, as any CSPAN viewer can attest, has never been a bastion of intelligence. As far back as two centuries ago, Samuel Johnson was demeaning the nation’s legislators as a “circus of rogues and fools.” But when it comes to sheer stupidity, the men and women of the 109th have distinguished themselves as a breed apart.

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. Not long ago such flagrant obtuseness might have ensured the senator a place on our annual list of America’s Dumbest Congressmen. Alas, given this year’s stiff competition, he didn’t even make runner-up.

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 congress.org, 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.