It's been about a week since we published the online version of Washingtonian's biennial "Best & Worst of Congress" survey. From best dressed to most clueless to meanest, our superlatives invited Capitol Hill underlings to beatify or bash their bosses.
The awards, both flattering and damaging, seemed to sail by all but the most Twitter-savvy members of Congress, although we would have expected to see something from Senator Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican whose grammar-averse, stream-of-concious-like social media profile managed to nab top honors for both "Tweet Master" and "Tweet Fail."
A few members paused from their busy fundraising schedules to take notice of the honorifics. Democratic dean John Dingell enjoyed being named the wisest member of the House, while his fellow Michigander, Republican Justin Amash, was quizzical about being branded lobbyists' worst enemy. Colorado Democrat Jared Polis, however, took umbrage at being named one of the House's sloppiest dressers.
Our survey also caused publications in our winners'—and losers'—home states to spill some ink of their own on their representatives' infamy. The Courier-Journal of Louisville, Kentucky was pleased Senators Mitch McConnell (workhorse) and Rand Paul (rising star) rate so well. Our favorite piece about the "Best & Worst" survey might be one from the Houston Chronicle, which backed up Representative Sheila Jackson Lee's repeat performance as the meanest member of the House with a gallery of horror stories from thrown cell phones to inserting herself into funeral speaking programs.
Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.
Capitol Police arrested a House staffer Friday morning for carrying a nine-millimeter handgun and magazine into a congressional office building.
Ryan Shucard, the press secretary for Pennsylvania Republican Tom Marino, was arrested at about 9:15 AM when the Smith & Wesson pistol turned up as he attempted to pass through security on his way to work at the Cannon House Office Building, according to a police statement. People entering buildings on the Capitol campus, including badge-carrying employees, are required to pass through airport-style metal detectors.
Shucard is charged with carrying a pistol without a license, which is a felony, and is being held at the Capitol Police’s headquarters. Under DC’s gun laws, which are some of the strictest in the nation, carrying a gun outside one’s home or place of business is punishable by up to five years in jail and a fine of up to $5,000.
Marino’s chief of staff, Bill Tighe, says Shucard, who lives in Virginia, was placed on an unpaid leave of absence. But Tighe adds that Capitol Police have informed Marino's office that Shucard might have brought the gun to work by mistake.
"They have said to us they have no reason to believe it's anything but an accident," Tighe tells Washingtonian.
Shucard’s arrest bears some similarities to a 2007 incident in which Phillip Thompson, an aide to then-Senator Jim Webb, was arrested after carrying a gun to work. Prosecutors dropped their charges against Thompson after Webb told them Thompson “inadvertently” brought the gun into the Capitol.
Representative Thomas Massie readily admits his amendment gutting DC’s gun laws, which is attached to an appropriations bill the House approved Wednesday, has no chance of becoming actual law. The Kentucky Republican is counting on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the upper chamber’s Democratic majority to ignore his tack-on when they take up the bill. But Massie’s putting up his fight to put more guns on District streets because he doesn’t want it to go unsaid that he didn’t stick his neck out for the Second Amendment every chance he got.
“I am universally for gun rights,” he said. “Universally I’m for freedom and I’m for freedom across the country. I don’t want this to be a referendum on home rule.”
Curious, then, that these comments came minutes after he crashed a press conference staged Thursday by Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, DC Mayor Vince Gray, and Assistant Metropolitan Police Department Chief Alfred Durham to condemn what city officials see as yet another Capitol Hill incursion into how the District governs itself. As they see it, Massie’s amendment, which would stop DC from spending any money to enforce its gun laws, is very much an attempt to trample on home rule.
Norton, with Massie standing politely among a gaggle of reporters, led off by mocking him for writing legislation that affects the District instead of his own constituents.
“Guess what I’ve just done for the people of Kentucky?” said Norton, doing her best Massie impersonation. Norton also said she spoke with a “high-ranking” White House official about working with Reid to make sure nothing similar to Massie’s amendment hits the Senate. Massie’s fellow Kentuckian, Senator Rand Paul, made his own attempt to overturn DC gun laws snuffed out last week, although he might not be done trying to futz with the District’s firearm regulations. DC’s gun laws, which allow people to own handguns and rifles as long as the guns stay inside their owners’ homes, are frequently cited as the strictest in the nation.
Durham said Massie’s amendment creates a “clear and present danger” to city residents. “It’s just ludicrous,” he said.
Norton and Gray said that even with Massie’s congressional trolling headed toward a likely parliamentary death, they’re not letting their guard down.
Upon leaving Norton’s press conference to head to the floor for votes, Massie insisted there’s a direct link between expanded gun rights and reduced crime rates. His evidence: the fact that violent crime is down since 2008, when the Supreme Court overturned the city’s longstanding ban on handgun ownership in District of Columbia v. Heller.
Aside from the supposed correlation, Massie offered no evidence that the Heller ruling actually made DC safer. Durham shrugged it off, saying that “crime is down because of the efforts of the Metropolitan Police Department.”
Massie wouldn’t budge on his claim, though. “I have a spreadsheet I can give you,” he said in his office, where a carton of Frosted Flakes with his photograph next to stripey breakfast mascot Tony the Tiger is given pride of place in a glass box in the foyer. But when asked for more proof, he dismissed the gaggle, announcing it was time to drive home to Kentucky for the weekend.
Massie’s office later supplied the spreadsheet (by Twitter) with MPD stats showing a drop violent crime between 2007 and 2011, but neither he nor his staff offered any contextual relationship between the numbers and Heller.
About 9:20 AM on Tuesday, someone on Capitol Hill tinkered with the Wikipedia page for the Nevada Test and Traning Range, a desert military outpost that contains the conspiracy-theory hub Area 51, to conclusively say that claims the site houses extraterrestrial beings are “completely unsubstantiated.”
Whether or not this Wikipedia contributor knows if the truth is out there is beside the point. The edit is one of dozens made every day from the halls of Congress, revealed thanks to a rapidly popular Twitter account, @congressedits, that tracks Wikipedia changes made by computers in the Capitol campus.
Launched last week, the account is the work of a software developer named Ed Summers, who created it to provide a greater lens on Congress’s activities.
“There is an incredible yearning in this country and around the world for using technology to provide more transparency about our democracies,” he wrote on his blog last Thursday. Summers, inspired by a similar account that tracks the British Parliament, wrote an algorithm that scans Wikipedia for edits made by users from internet protocol addresses assigned to Congress.
As a free encyclopedia that anyone can edit, Wikipedia is no academic source, but as the fifth-most trafficked website in the world, its cultural authority is difficult to ignore. The @congressedits account reveals just how much some people on the Hill care about their—or their bosses’—digital reputations. Among the House members whose pages have been edited in recent days: Virginia Republican Robert Hurt, Arizona Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, Michigan Republican Justin Amash, and West Virginia Republican Thomas Massie. On Friday, for instance, someone tweaked Amash’s biography to change his past occupation from “corporate lawyer” to the more politically palatable “attorney.”
Other edits are less career-minded, though, and some are downright inane. One yesterday, made to the article for Choco Taco ice-cream bars, which was briefly modified to contain an unsubstantiated yarn about the Mexican-themed frozen treats being a favorite of former House speaker Sam Rayburn. Another anonymous Wikipedian on the Hill made edits to the page for the sitcom It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
And in what’s perhaps an inevitable acknowledgment to Wikipedia’s inherently specious nature, there also appears to be a heady appetite for conspiracy theories. Just today, the page about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy was edited to state that Lee Harvey Oswald acted on behalf of Fidel Castro, while the description of former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld was changed from “politician and businessman” to “politician, alien lizard, and businessman.”
Both tinfoil-hatted edits have since been overturned by other Wikipedians outside Congress, but @congressedits remains a worthwhile account to follow.
Janet Yellen is not. Washington’s legal community is. Some say that his recent slide into a job at the private-equity firm Warburg Pincus proves Timothy Geithner always was.
What’s the charge? With the Volcker Rule—which purports to make banks’ trading less risky—gaining final approval just before the new year and Yellen’s confirmation as Federal Reserve chair just after, the phrase “captured by Wall Street” has gained a currency it hasn’t had since the days of the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Dividing the captured from the rest has become the new parlor game for pundits.
What makes it an interesting pastime is that the once-natural categories of pro-market Republicans and pro-regulation Democrats no longer apply. Last year, when Columbia law professor John Coffee quit a task force on financial regulation at the Bipartisan Policy Center, he explained in a parting shot how Wall Street’s influence was changing our politics. Although the major parties were equally represented on the panel, Coffee told the Washington Post in August, “it was not bipartisan in terms of the critical division in Washington: the financial services party and the reform party.”
Coffee’s insight echoes a similar one about how campaign finance is deforming our usual notions of partisanship. “ ‘Republican’ doesn’t mean anything. ‘Democrat’ doesn’t mean anything,” a candidate vanquished by undisclosed corporate cash in Michigan told NPR in November. “It’s the huge money and everybody else.”
The constant press for contributions is a true bipartisan effort. “When it comes to fundraising, they all understand each other,” says Viveca Novak of the Center for Responsive Politics.
But Wall Street’s capture of the capital is more complex. Washington lawyers are hired less for their advice than for doing their clients’ bidding. On the Hill, many would-be reformers have one eye on the revolving door. “Most Senate Banking Committee staffers are in their early thirties,” says former Joe Biden aide Jeff Connaughton, author of The Payoff: Why Wall Street Always Wins. “I can’t tell them, ‘Don’t worry about making money.’ ”
More than that, the big bankers constitute a powerful club. “There’s a social glue,” says Connaughton. “If you play ball with establishment forces, you’ll do well.”
Then there’s the simple fear of wrecking the economy. Even if last-minute changes put teeth into the Volcker Rule, some veteran observers still take the overall timidity of the Dodd-Frank reforms as a sign that Wall Street’s warnings against meddling with the market have paralyzed lawmakers. “So much more could have been asked for by someone with a vision of where to go,” says Donald Langevoort, a securities expert at Georgetown Law.
No one expects a formal realignment of the parties—paralysis only heightens the partisan rancor. But when serious legislating gets done—as when the establishment circled its wagons to pass December’s budget deal, with the House speaker blasting away to his right—expect it to come not by traditional bipartisanism but by a coalition of the captured, or the not.
This article appears in the February 2014 issue of Washingtonian.
If Congressman Peter King gets his way, Hollywood filmmakers will have a harder time making movies about events that relate to national security. He’s asked the Pentagon and the CIA to come up with a stricter method of dealing with the entertainment industry.
What prompted the New York Republican’s concern is a film in production by Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow about the killing of Osama bin Laden. King says he heard the Obama administration was giving Bigelow access to sensitive information about the raid, leading him to demand an investigation by the Department of Defense and the CIA.
King says the preliminary investigation must have found something relevant, because the DOD inspector general decided to move forward with a formal investigation, which, according to King, is underway now. Neither Bigelow nor her screenwriting partner, Mark Boal, has commented publicly, but it’s well known that they were working on the bin Laden film even before the Al Qaeda leader was killed by a team of Navy SEALs in May 2011.
Minnesota representative and presidential candidate Michele Bachmann at the Ames, Iowa, Straw Poll. Photograph by Gage Skidmore
Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann touts her experience as a federal tax lawyer with the IRS, a job she says gave her the insights she needs to simplify the US tax code. But Bachmann is curiously silent about another part of her legal career—perhaps because it didn’t amount to much.
In the mid-’90s, five years before she entered a career in politics, Bachmann hung out a shingle as a legal mediator, a specialist who helps parties settle conflicts out of court. The company, Michele Bachmann Mediation LLC, “was formed to offer a service to people seeking mediation tax services,” said Bachmann’s congressional spokesperson, Becky Rogness. But it’s unclear what clients—if any—Bachmann had.
Bachmann took all the steps one would expect from an aspiring small-business owner. She incorporated the company with the state of Minnesota, listing her then-home address in Stillwater. She took a series of state-sanctioned courses in order to have her name placed on a state roster of qualified mediators. Bachmann even advertised—in 1995, she adopted a stretch of highway in her company’s name, which was printed on a road sign.
But four other mediators in Stillwater said they never saw Bachmann in professional circles or heard of her taking clients. Most were surprised to learn she’d had a mediation business at all. There is no official account of any work Bachmann may have done—mediation proceedings are confidential and Minnesota doesn’t keep records of them, a state official said. Bachmann also didn’t disclose any income from the business on her financial disclosure forms after she was elected to the state senate in 2000.
Kurt Bardella, left, with Republican California Representative Darrell Issa. Photograph courtesy Kurt Bardella
Just six months after being tossed from Capitol Hill in disgrace, controversial GOP press operative Kurt Bardella has been rehired by the very congressional committee that fired him.
The news that the House Commmittee on Oversight and Government Reform rehired Bardella was first reported by FishbowlDC’s Betsy Rothstein early Wednesday morning.
Photograph by Scott Gries (PictureGroup)
In our July issue—on stands now—we told you about Washington lawyer Trevor Potter, who has been shepherding Comedy Central star Stephen Colbert through the process of forming a super PAC. Check out our piece below on how Potter, a longtime counsel to clients such as Sen. John McCain, became Colbert’s lawyer.
Potter has earned those legal fees. As of Thursday, he, along with the help of Matthew Sanderson, an associate at his law firm, achieved success when the Federal Election Commission approved Colbert’s Super PAC. For the second time, Colbert visited the FEC, bringing throngs of screaming fans and reporters to the typically quiet agency.
During remarks to the crowd, Colbert thanked his legal team: “We owe a debt to my lawyers Trevor Potter and Matt Sanderson of the heroic law firm Caplin & Drysdale. Two names that will go down with the great American duos—Lewis and Clark, Sacco and Vanzetti, Harold and Kumar.”
It’s a safe bet that two DC lawyers have never before been compared to Harold and Kumar.
What do Republican senator John McCain and Comedy Central’s faux pundit Stephen Colbert have in common? Their lawyer, Trevor Potter.
Fans of The Colbert Report have seen Potter—head of Caplin & Drysdale’s political-law practice and a lawyer in its Washington office—make four appearances on the show as he counsels Colbert on how to set up his super PAC, a new type of political-fundraising apparatus that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money.
Though the legal work is playing out before a TV audience and, in usual Colbert fashion, is meant to highlight the absurdities of campaign-finance rules, it’s not just entertainment. Colbert is a real client; Potter says he got the legal work the same way lawyers get much of their work—by referral. When Colbert decided to tackle federal-election-law issues, the show asked a New York attorney and former guest for recommendations. The attorney suggested Potter.
Every summer thousands of interns arrive on Capitol Hill. For those bright-eyed and ambitious college students and recent graduates hoping to live out their West Wing fantasies, FamousDC bloggers Josh Shultz and Amos Snead created this career chart laying out what the future holds.
Click the image to view the chart at full size.
This article appears in the June 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.