The Dictator: James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.)
No politician better embodies the zealotry of the 109th Congress than Sensenbrenner, chairman of the powerful House Judiciary Committee. His solution to hot-button issues is always the same: Lock 'em up. Sensenbrenner has proposed legislation that would turn 12 million undocumented immigrants into felons, subject any adult selling a joint to a teenager to at least ten years in prison, and incarcerate college kids for failing to narc on their hallmates. He also wants to prosecute anyone who utters an obscenity on the air. Big fines just aren't tough enough for indecent broadcasts: As Sensenbrenner told a group of cable executives last year, "I'd prefer using the criminal process rather than the regulatory process."
In addition to his assault on free speech, Sensenbrenner has also played a major role in curtailing civil liberties. He was the lead House sponsor of the Patriot Act, which gives the government broad powers to spy on Americans. Although the measure was intended to stop terrorists, Sensenbrenner insists it should also be used in routine criminal cases.
Sensenbrenner's iron-fisted rule of the judiciary committee was on nationwide display last year during a televised debate over reauthorization of the Patriot Act. When Democrats began discussing the treatment of detainees at Guantánamo, the chairman abruptly ended the meeting and cut off their microphones. When Democrats refused to leave the room, Sensenbrenner's staff pulled the plug on C-Span and turned out the lights. As The Daily Show host Jon Stewart put it, "He literally took his gavel and went home."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called Sensenbrenner's abuse of power "disgraceful." But Democrats should take heart: The GOP chairman is an equal-opportunity bully. "He treats us all equally," says Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.). "He treats us all like dogs."
Sensenbrenner, whose $10 million fortune stems from his great-grandfather's invention of the Kotex sanitary napkin, won $250,000 in the lottery in 1997. He also enjoys the perks of office: No congressman has racked up more frequent-flier miles on junkets sponsored by corporate lobbyists. While he was enjoying the good life last year, Sensenbrenner took time out to make life tougher on working families, winning approval for a bill that makes it harder for Americans overwhelmed by debt to declare bankruptcy. The congressman refused to consider an exemption from the bill's restrictions for victims of Hurricane Katrina – and even voted against the aid package designed to help them recover from the disaster.
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