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The Cavernous Abyss

The late night "debates" on the floor of the House.

11:00 PM, Feb 7, 2007 • By JOSEPH LINDSLEY
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DURING THE FIRST weeks--or, in Pelosi time, 100 hours--of the 110th Congress, the word "comity" spewed from Capitol Hill like the ash that came out of Krakatoa in 1883. But old ways remain. Consider the continued role of "fact-checking squads" in the House of Representatives. Both the Democrats' "30-Something Working Group" and the Republicans' unofficial "Official Truth Squad" take to the House floor late at night, though never at the same time, to denounce the policies of the other party during sporadic "special orders" sessions. But they do not "dialogue" with each other; rather, they address only themselves--and the insomniacs and junkies who watch C-SPAN at 11pm.

The "30-Something Working Group" consists of the youngest House Democrats, led by Reps. Debbie Wasserman Shultz, Kendrick Meek, and Tim Ryan. In the last congress, the 30-Somethings use stat-filled charts (on the minimum wage, for example), props (bobble-head dolls and giant inflatable rubber stamps), and whimsical discussions (references to Alice in Wonderland and Star Trek) to mock the "Rubber Stamp Republican Majority," which, like a bunch of bobble-heads, nodded yes to every request from the president, thereby leading us into war, sending spending out of orbit, and, in general, screwing up the country. What's more, the 30-Somethings said they could prove all of their claims thanks to what they termed "third-party validators"--frequently, articles in the New York Times.

Striving to be cool in their anger, the 30-Somethings bring an august American tradition to the House floor: the rhetoric of the infomercial. One member feigns incredulity at the idea being sold; another then explains the details, and, lo, they all come to see the light. "Mr. Ryan, I think I have figured it out," Wasserman Schultz said one night as she recited a top ten list after calling herself "Danielle Letterman." "You have broken the code. The Republicans are the party of the cavernous abyss. They don't mind sending people right off the cliff into it, whether it is expanding poverty, sinking job growth, increasing the number of uninsured by millions each year."

But now, with the Democrats in the majority, the 30-Somethings are careful to couch their arguments in the framework of civility--noting, as Rep. Meek has, that it's not Republicans who are bad, only their leadership. In January, the 30-Something website posted a YouTube video of interviews during which Meek asked Capitol visitors what should be done with their no-longer needed prop, the giant rubber stamp, while Boyz II Men's "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye" provided the soundtrack. Most folks recommend that the stamp be kept as a reminder of the dark days of GOP dominance, a memento mori of what could happen without a Democratic majority.

On the right, the Official Truth Squad, led by Georgia Rep. Tom Price, M.D., is not as official as its Pelosi-sanctioned counterpart; unlike the 30-Somethings, they do not end every session with a paean of praise to their party's leadership. And they're not as hip. A prominent member, North Carolina's Patrick McHenry is indeed young, only 31, but he is gray like the rest of them--though his hair has gotten a bit darker recently. Fellow Tarheel Virginia Foxx, one of the squad's core fighters, grabbed the president after the State of the Union speech, and, after several failed tries, finally plopped a nice wet one on his cheek. But what they lack in youth, poise, and technology (as yet they have no website or YouTube video productions), they make up for with political acumen and dedication.

During "Official Truth Squad hours" over the past two years, Foxx, McHenry, Price, and another Georgia doctor, Phil Gingrey, "fact-check" Democratic proposals. On January 17, for example, Price, highlighting absurdities in Pelosi's 100-hour campaign, noted that "if you have the desire to deceive the American people and turn the clock on and off whenever you want to, then you get to about 33 hours, which is what the Democrat clock tells us they have taken" three weeks into the new Congress. And whereas the 30-Somethings admiringly quote former Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich, members of the Official Truth Squad cite the late Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who, according to Dr. Price, "kind of crystallized what is a real concern here in Washington, because everybody throws around their own opinions. But his quote was, 'Everyone is entitled to their own opinion but not their own facts.'''