Sunday, August 22, 2010

Democracy's Ultimate Subversion

One may hate a politician. One may hate everything the politician stands for. One may work tirelessly to convince him to vote a certain way, or get him voted out to prevent him from any further votes against one's interests.

However, it is generally accepted that once they reach the chamber floor to cast that vote, there's nothing more that can be done by people who don't belong on the floor. All one can do at that point is wait and hope. One can't physically stop a legislator from casting a vote, right?

I wouldn't be bringing it up if people haven't tried.

1908: 'Fightin' Bob' LaFollette of wisconsin was opposed to the Aldrich-Vreeland Act, which in hindsight was a perfectly good bill. It would establish the National Monetary Commission, which in turn recommended the creation of the Federal Reserve. LaFollette was most likely opposed to the part of the bill that allowed banks to issue emergency currency in response to the Panic of 1907; he was not a fan of the banks. He proceeded to filibuster the bill.

Or at least, he tried to. Over the course of the filibuster, starting at 12:20 PM on May 29, he would drink a mixture of milk and raw eggs to keep his strength up. (It would have to be for strength, I hope, because, ew.) Somewhere past his tenth hour, he drank one such mixture... or at least began to, before noticing something tasted different. He stopped drinking it, had it removed for analysis, and continued the filibuster.

But he had drank enough for it to take an effect. He would last until 7:03 the next morning, but then conked out with symptoms of dysentery, and the bill passed and was signed by President Teddy Roosevelt by the end of the day.

What was in the milk and egg that LaFollette noticed? Ptomaine poison, enough to kill a man, according to the book 'Wicked Washington: Mysteries, Murder & Mayhem in America's Capital' by Troy Taylor. Someone had tried to kill him to stop the filibuster. (Nobody was ever arrested for it. And by the way, 'ptomaine' is a word no longer used scientifically- think alkaloids now- but back then that word was used, so we use it here.)

1954: Puerto Rico has been a commonwealth since 1952, and has since existed in a kind of limbo between statehood, independence, and the status quo. Independence is not a commonly-held position these days, but in 1954, so soon after the declaration as a commonwealth, tensions were high.

On March 1, 1954, as Congress was debating an unrelated immigration bill, four independence-minded Puerto Ricans- Andres Figueroa Cordero, Rafael Cancel Miranda, Lolita Lebron, and Irving Flores Rodriguez- would make their way into the Ladies' Gallery of the House of Representatives. A guard asked if they had cameras; they did not.

They had guns.

While the House was debating, the four unfurled a Puerto Rican flag, Lebron screamed "Viva Puerto Rico libre!", and they opened fire. 29 rounds were fired; five Congressmen were hit; all would recover. Two current members of Congress were pages on the floor that day, Bill Emerson of Missouri and Paul Kanjorski of Pennsylvania.

President Eisenhower commuted the very-predictable death sentences to a minimum of 70 years in prison. Jimmy Carter commuted Cordero in 1978, and the others in 1979 as part of a spy swap with Cuba.

Lebron died earlier this month at age 90.

The backs of the chairs on the floors of Congress are now bulletproof.

1989: The state level's not entirely immune either. Bo Pilgrim, the owner of chicken processor Pilgrim's Pride, was worried that the Texas State Senate might vote against his interests on a worker's compensation bill.

Pilgrim's solution: Walk right onto the State Senate floor and start handing out $10,000 checks.

As Pilgrim put it, "The common practice of mine is to give large contributions to people -preachers, educational institutions and politicians - and $10,000 or $100,000 is a common practice with me. It's primarily just for the name identification with the politicians. They will answer your calls and give you an appointment and listen to you describe an issue. It does not infer a bribe."

While a number of the Senators accepted the checks, almost nobody that wasn't actively involved thought it could possibly be anything else. (And when the media caught wind of it, just about all of the checks were returned in a hurry.)

Amazingly, in Texas, this was legal to do at the time. It was nearly impossible to ring someone up on a bribery charge, and during special sessions of the legislature- which this was- the campaign finance laws were even looser than usual. Not for long, though. Pilgrim's actions proved so utterly beyond the pale that the bribe backfired. Not only did Pilgrim lose the vote, the incident spurred a series of campaign-finance reform laws, including- it seems so obvious- a ban on accepting contributions within the Capitol, and the creation of the Texas Ethics Commission.

Two years later, Pilgrim won the Bonehead of the Year award from the Bonehead Club of Dallas. In his acceptance speech, he said he had learned something from the experience, which "may be summed up in a few simple words:

Automatic fund transfer."

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