Putting pols to the test

According to the latest Gallup 2010 Confidence in Institutions poll, the U.S. Congress ranks dead last out of the 16 institutions rated.  Only 11% percent of Americans have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in those who populate the institution, down from 17% in 2009 and a percentage point lower than the previous low (2008).

It’s no wonder that the intelligence of members of Congress has so often been spoofed.  “Suppose you were an idiot and suppose you were a member of Congress.  But I repeat myself,” quipped Mark Twain.  Humorist Will Rogers addressed the consequences of these deficiencies: “When Congress makes a joke it’s a law, and when they make a law, it’s a joke.”

There are innumerable examples of the joke being on us.  A friend of mine was seated at a banquet table with the family of then-Rep. Dan Glickman (D-Kansas), who was later to become secretary of agriculture in the Clinton cabinet.  The family expressed relief at his having entered politics because none of them thought Dan was smart enough to enter the family business: auto shredding and scrap metal.  I attended a symposium that Rep. Tom Bliley (R-Virginia), then chairman of the powerful House Commerce Committee, addressed via teleconference.  As he recited from a prepared statement, he included the “stage instructions” — such as “Pause for emphasis” — that had been inserted by his speechwriter.  And where one line inadvertently had been duplicated, Bliley read it a second time.

Congressman John Salazar (D-CO) recently related this anecdote: “You know when I was debating what became the 2008 Farm Bill, I had a member of the Ag Committee actually ask me if chocolate milk really comes from brown cows.  I asked if he was joking and he assured me he wasn’t.”  A member of the Agriculture Committee?

Politicians constantly suffer from foot-in-mouth disease.  Consider these recent gaffes:

– Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) proclaimed on the House floor on July 15 that “victory had been achieved” by the United States in the Vietnam war and that, “[t]oday, we have two Vietnams; side-by-side, North and South, exchanging and working.  We may not agree with all that North Vietnam is doing, but they are living in peace.”  The truth is, of course, that since the withdrawal of the United States in 1975 — three years after Lee graduated from college — what used to be North and South Vietnam have been united under a single communist government.

Rep. Lee is a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

It was also Rep. Lee who during a visit to the Jet Propulsion Lab in 2005 asked a NASA scientist whether the Mars Pathfinder probe had photographed the flag that astronaut Neil Armstrong had left behind in 1969.  Armstrong had, of course, left the flag on the moon, not Mars.  No manned spacecraft has visited Mars.

– Alvin Greene, the Democratic candidate for the Senate in South Carolina, is like something from a Monty Python skit.  He is unemployed; has raised only “about $1,000″ for his campaign — compared to his incumbent opponent’s $3.5 million; is facing a felony charge of showing pornographic Internet photos to a female University of South Carolina student; and suggested in July that launching a line of action figures modeled after him could provide needed jobs for South Carolinians.