The Ten Worst Members of the Worst Congress Ever
This story is from the November 2, 2006 issue of Rolling Stone.
The Highway Robber: Dennis Hastert (R-Ill)
Hastert could well be the weakest House speaker in history. Tapped by Tom DeLay to serve as the mild-mannered frontman for the GOP leadership, the former wrestling coach ceded most of his power to the now-disgraced majority leader, allowing Republicans to treat the Capitol as their private piggy bank. Last year, Hastert got in on the action himself, secretly inserting $207 million into the budget for the “Prairie Parkway” – a highway that will speed development of 210 acres he owns in Illinois. Before the year was out, Hastert sold part of his land – soon to be the site of a sprawling subdivision – for a profit of $2 million.
“Here’s a guy who saw a chance to profit from his official acts and took it,” says Bill Allison, who uncovered the late-night earmark as a senior analyst for the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan watchdog group. “Most of us aren’t speaker of the House, and most of us don’t have a $200 million earmark running through our back yard. Hastert does, and he made a fortune from it.”
The speaker at least functions as a bipartisan defender of congressional corruption. In February 2005, he purged the chairman of the House Ethics Committee for daring to admonish DeLay. And after Rep. William Jefferson’s offices were raided by the FBI last spring, it was Hastert who lodged the strongest protest on the Louisiana Democrat’s behalf.
Hastert is especially good at turning a blind eye to scandal: An aide says the speaker’s office knew about Rep. Mark Foley’s penchant for page boys three years ago, yet Hastert took no action to protect minors working for Congress.
In another secret budget deal, Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist joined forces last December to give the pharmaceutical industry a Christmas gift worth billions. After the “final” version of the defense budget emerged from conference, the duo added a provision that gives drug makers immunity from liability lawsuits – shielding them from claims that their mercury-laden vaccines sparked the current autism epidemic.
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.
Mr. Pork: Don Young (R-Alaska)
Powerful enough to earn the moniker “Alaska’s Third Senator,” this seventeen-term congressman and former tugboat captain knows how to haul home the bacon. Thanks in no small part to his efforts, Alaskans receive $1.87 in federal funds for every dollar they contribute in taxes. Last year, Young leveraged his post as chairman of the House Transportation Committee to stuff the highway bill – “like a turkey,” in his own words – with nearly $1 billion in pork-barrel projects for his home state.
More than $400 million of the money was earmarked for two separate “bridges to nowhere.” One, nearly as long as the Golden Gate, would serve an island community of only fifty people. The second, a monument to waste known as “Don Young’s Way,” would connect Anchorage to a patch of scarcely habitable marshland.
“These two bridges are the most egregious example of government waste we’ve ever seen,” says Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste. Even the conservative Heritage Foundation called one of Young’s bridges a “national embarrassment.” But the congressman refused to scrap the projects. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when Sen. John McCain proposed that Young redirect his prized pork money to help rebuild New Orleans, Young accused his detractors of “ignorance and stupidity.” The victims of Katrina, he suggested, “can kiss my ear!”
Such coarseness is a Young hallmark. He once called environmentalists a “self-centered bunch of waffle-stomping, Harvard-graduating, intellectual idiots” who “are not Americans, never have been Americans, never will be Americans.” And during a debate on the right of native Alaskans to sell the sex organs of endangered animals as aphrodisiacs, Young whipped out the eighteen-inch penis bone of a walrus and brandished it like a sword on the House floor.
As for his pork projects, Young – who tried his hand at gold mining in Alaska before realizing that the real riches lay in Congress – apparently feels no shame. When someone suggested that Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska had outdone him in bringing home federal dollars, Young just laughed. “If he’s the chief porker,” the congressman said, “I’m upset.”
The Bribe Taker: William Jefferson (D-LA.)
While his constituents back home were still reeling from the worst natural disaster in U.S. history, Jefferson was lining his own pockets in Washington. In May, the FBI raided his office after the Louisiana Democrat was caught accepting $100,000 in bribes – most of which was later discovered in Jefferson’s freezer. Vernon Jackson, the CEO of iGate, was sentenced to seven years for bribing Jefferson to push the tech company’s products on the U.S. Army.
Democrats didn’t fully abandon their most self-serving member. The party hosted a fund-raiser for Jefferson in March, long after it was clear he was under investigation. When he was busted, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi did force Jefferson to give up his seat on the Ways and Means Committee – but then joined House Speaker Dennis Hastert in denouncing the FBI’s raid on Jefferson’s office as “unconstitutional.”
Equally shameful were Jefferson’s antics after Katrina struck: He commandeered a Coast Guard helicopter to gather personal effects from his home in New Orleans – at a time when his constituents were literally drowning in their attics. Yet despite his unethical behavior, Jefferson is cruising to re-election. “In Louisiana, they have a long tradition of corruption – a Huey Long tradition,” says Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
The King of Payoffs: Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.)
Aside from future jailbird William “Dollar Bill” Jefferson, the sitting congressman most likely to be indicted is Lewis. As chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Lewis oversees nearly $900 billion a year in federal spending – but anyone looking for a slice of that money has to deal with his best friend, lobbyist Bill Lowery. “If you want an earmark from Lewis, you have to hire Lowery,” says Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “There’s a direct exchange.” In return for the business, Lowery and his clients made more than $480,000 in contributions to Lewis – more than a third of the congressman’s total campaign money since 2000. Lowery’s firm, in turn, tripled its revenue to $5 million – and his clients pocketed hundreds of millions in federal pork projects from Lewis.
The revolving door spins so fast between Lewis and Lowery that their offices operate almost as a single machine to swap taxpayer dollars for corporate donations. Jeffrey Shockey, who worked as a staffer for Lewis, left to join Lowery’s firm – and then returned to work for Lewis as deputy chief of staff of appropriations. As a parting gift, Lowery hired Shockey’s wife as a lobbyist and gave him nearly $2 million – a down payment on the firm’s future earnings. Another Lewis staffer, now a Lowery partner, does such brisk business with her old boss that she’s known as “K Street’s Queen of Earmarks.” Even Brent Wilkes – the defense contractor whose payoffs sent Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham to prison earlier this year – has complained about the shakedown operation. “If you don’t want to make the contributions,” Wilkes recalls Lowery telling him, “you will get left behind.” Wilkes also claimed that Lowery threatened to cut him off from Lewis and his lucrative earmarks unless he forked over $25,000 a month in lobbying fees.
Lewis, a former insurance salesman elected to Congress in 1978, has long tapped corporate interests for campaign cash: In one of his early races, all of his money came from just forty-three donors – and twenty-two of them were lobbyists.
The FBI has issued ten subpoenas involving Lewis’ current operation, and Lowery’s firm has scurried to report more than $2 million in undisclosed income. The lobbyist, in fact, is an old hand at the abuse of public trust: A former congressman himself, Lowery lost his House seat in 1992 thanks to an ethics scandal. The man who beat him? None other than Duke Cunningham.
Mr. Bigotry: Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.)
The House Immigration Reform Caucus certainly has its share of hard-core xenophobes: One member, Rep. Steve King of lowa, calls illegal immigration a “terrorist attack on the United States” and wants to erect an electrified fence to control Mexicans like livestock. But the founder of the caucus – and the undisputed king of Republican bigotry – is Tancredo, a dark-horse presidential contender for 2008. “He’s got the best track record in Congress,” raves Gordon Baum, head of the Council for Conservative Citizens, a “pro-white” group that lauds Tancredo for protecting America from a “full-scale invasion” of Latin immigrants.
Elected to the House in 1998, Tancredo has not only led the fight to deport every undocumented worker in America – a proposal that would cost at least $200 billion – but has called for halting all immigration, legal and otherwise. In one unforgettable move, Tancredo wanted to deport the family of an undocumented high school boy who was profiled in The Denver Post for his perfect grades.
The grandson of Italian immigrants, Tancredo traces his interest in politics to the eighth grade, when he played Fidel Castro in a class assignment. He urges America to reject “the siren song of multiculturalism” and depicts Islam as “a civilization bent on destroying ours.” In September, when Pope Benedict XVI sparked riots by condemning Islam as “evil,” Tancredo urged him not to apologize. Even the right has noted his unbridled looniness on the subject: In July, when Tancredo proposed that America respond to any future terrorist attack by bombing Mecca and other holy sites, the National Review came to an unavoidable conclusion: “Tom Tancredo is an idiot.”
Enemy of the Earth: Dick Pombo (R-Calif.)
No member of Congress has worked harder to savage America’s natural resources than Pombo, a Stetson-wearing cattleman who ran for office after a nature trail was slated to run through his family’s 500-acre ranch. As chairman of the House Resources Committee, Pombo has waged a career-long campaign to abolish the Endangered Species Act, which he accuses of putting “rats and shellfish” before people. Last year he almost succeeded: His comically titled “Threatened and Endangered Species Recovery Act” would have phased out all protection for threatened wildlife by 2015. Pombo has also won passage of bills to eliminate habitat protections on 150 million acres of wilderness and to lift a quarter-century moratorium on offshore oil drilling.
“Dick Pombo is the most dangerous member of the House,” says Carl Pope of the Sierra Club. “There’s no one who represents the threat to our public lands that he does.”
But Pombo doesn’t let his environmental attacks get in the way of his own profit: He raked in $35,000 from clients of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and paid his own wife and brother $357,000 for dubious campaign services. That’s a quarter of every dollar raised by his political action committee – known, aptly enough, as Rich PAC.
The Conspiracy Nut: Curt Weldon (R-PA.)
Weldon might be laughed off as a harmless crank if he weren’t vice chair of the House Armed Services Committee. When he doesn’t like the intelligence he hears from America’s spy agencies, he makes up some of his own. He continues to insist that Saddam Hussein had WMDs – and smuggled them to Syria prior to the U.S. invasion. He promotes the moonbat theory that a Special Forces unit called “Able Danger” flagged three 9/11 hijackers prior to the attack on the Twin Towers – a flight of fancy discredited by the 9/11 Commission. He even developed his own super-secret source – code named “Ali” – to provide him with intelligence on Iran. The problem was, Ali turned out to be a pal of Manucher Ghorbanifar, the Iran-Contra go-between rejected by the CIA for fabricating intelligence.
“Curt Weldon has outlived his usefulness to the country,” says House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. “He’s seeing ghosts and conspiracies.”
A former fire chief who speaks fluent Russian, Weldon was instrumental in keeping Ronald Reagan’s fantasy of a missile-defense system alive during the Clinton years. But Weldon isn’t just crazy. “He’s one of the slimiest members of Congress,” says Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. Companies with business before Weldon’s committees have directed $1 million in lobbying deals to his daughter and sponsored his son’s race-car operation.
Weldon also has an ugly streak that would make Karl Rove blush. During his current re-election campaign, he criticized his opponent, retired Vice Adm. Joe Sestak, for seeking treatment for his daughter’s brain tumor at a hospital outside of Pennsylvania. “Using my daughter’s illness for political purposes,” Sestak responds, “is simply beyond the pale.”
Homeland Security Hog: Hal Rogers (R-KY.)
No congressman has single-handedly put America at greater risk than Rogers. As chairman of the House Subcommittee on Homeland Security, he has placed the interests of his own district ahead of defending the nation from Al Qaeda, prompting even the archconservative National Review to call him a “congressional disgrace.”
Since the 9/11 attacks, Rogers has abused his position to steer production of a system designed to enhance airport security to a factory in Corbin, Kentucky. The trouble is, the factory wasn’t equipped to produce the tamperproof biometric ID cards favored by security experts. So Rogers forced the government to spend $4 million to test the factory’s technology – steering some of the work to a tiny company that hired his son. When the factory flunked the test, Rogers delayed the process again, demanding that prototypes for new cards be built in Kentucky.
Rogers also steered a no-bid contract worth hundreds of millions of dollars to a trade group with no relevant experience in airport security – after the group paid for Rogers to take six trips to Hawaii and one to Ireland. “It’s as if he grabbed people off the street and said, ‘Hey, would you manage a critical homeland-security program? No experience required,'” says Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste.
Complaints by experienced contractors ultimately forced Rogers to open the project to competitive bidding – further delaying the improvements to airport security until next year at the earliest.
The Queen of Gay Bashing: Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.)
Musgrave has made regulating the bedroom behavior of her fellow Americans the focus of her entire career. An evangelical Christian who married her Bible-camp sweetheart, Musgrave does not believe in the separation of church and state. She entered politics in 1990, running for her local school board on a crusade to end sex education as part of the curriculum. By the time her tenure was over, the schools taught “abstinence only” – and offending passages in health textbooks had been blacked out. During her eight years in the Colorado legislature, Musgrave continued her moralizing, overcoming two vetoes by the governor to pass a state ban on gay marriage.
Once in Congress, Musgrave introduced a constitutional amendment to outlaw gay marriage – which she calls “the most important issue that we face today” – nearly a year before a Massachusetts court approved civil unions. “She doesn’t like the idea of one gay person,” says Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts. “So obviously the idea of two of us hanging out makes her very unhappy.” For her opposition to gay marriage – as well as her push to legalize concealed weapons – Musgrave received an endorsement from the KKK in May.
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House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi doesn’t consider Musgrave’s move to rewrite the nation’s founding document a laughing matter. “She is trying to taint the Constitution,” Pelosi says. “That is a violation of the oath of office.” But Frank notes one thing he admires about Musgrave: “If you’re going to have someone who’s a hater, it’s best that she’s not very bright. I appeared with her in a couple of forums to debate her bill, but she’s totally incapable of even explaining what it says.”
This story is from the November 2, 2006 issue of Rolling Stone.
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