The Accidental Congressman

The surprising success and strict constitutionalism of Georgia Rep. Paul Broun

Pundits, academics, and Republican activists in Georgia want to make this perfectly clear: Paul Broun is an accidental congressman.

“I was flabbergasted when he won the election,” admits Jim Box, one of many eminences in the Georgia Republican Party who declined to endorse the 61-year-old house call doctor before his upset victory in a special election last July. Box runs the GOP in Clarke County, which surrounds Athens and includes the University of Georgia; it’s the area that gave Broun his winning majority.

“All the long-term historical indicators,” says Merle Black, “indicate that Broun should have lost.” Black, an Emory University political scientist with a peerless knowledge of Southern politics, bets that Broun will serve one term and lose the next Republican primary. Box agrees.

It’s easy to see why they’re skeptical. Broun, a self-described “strict constitutionalist,” believes that the income tax should be abolished, that civil liberties degraded since 9/11 should be restored, and that fetuses deserve American citizenship. He has been married four times; opponents grumble that he performs house calls because hospitals won’t hire him. This isn’t the usual background of somebody who gets elected in Georgia.

So how did Broun get to Congress? After Rep. Charlie Norwood (R-Ga.) died of cancer last February, 10 candidates—six Republicans, three Democrats, and one Libertarian—fought for his seat. The entire Republican establishment, from Norwood’s widow to local party leaders, endorsed a venerable state senator named Jim Whitehead. To them, Broun was a meandering fringe candidate who had squandered his good name (his father was a state senator from Athens) in three previous defeats: a 1990 House race, a 1992 House primary, and a 1996 Senate primary. In the last contest, he finished fourth, with only 3 percent of the vote.

Whitehead ran a front-runner’s campaign, skipping debates and promising to continue Norwood’s moderate conservative legacy. Broun ran the same campaign he always has, pledging to support bills only if they fit a quirky four-part test: They have to be moral (according to the Bible), constitutional (according to the version he keeps in his suit pocket), necessary (according to logic), and affordable (according to a balanced federal budget). Even after tapping into $200,000 of his own cash, Broun raised just half as much money as Whitehead did and finished a distant second in the first round of voting, 43.5 percent to 20.7 percent. Since no one received a majority, there was a runoff, but nearly everyone expected Whitehead’s win.

But then Whitehead got smug. As the runoff approached, he didn’t run any TV ads or do any polling. He joked about bombing everything at the University of Georgia except for the football team. He accused Democrats of registering “known Al Qaeda terrorists” to vote. It was a slow-motion collapse. Broun ended up muscling past Whitehead by less than 400 votes out of about 47,000 cast.

“I hope my colleagues will go to school on what my election meant,” Broun says. “Everybody thought it was a slam dunk, my opponent winding up here. But he’s not here.”

There are two reasons why Broun’s career is worth examining closely. The first is Broun himself. He compares himself happily to Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), the anti-war libertarian presidential candidate: Both men are physicians who carry pocket Constitutions and often find themselves on the losing side of congressional votes. (Broun likes Paul, but he doesn’t share Paul’s views on Iraq and won’t make a presidential endorsement.) The day he was sworn in, Broun joined just 13 other Republicans (and 150 Democrats) in supporting a bill to call off raids by the Drug Enforcement Administration on medical marijuana distributors. He was one of only four congressmen to oppose the Drug Endangered Children Act, which allocated $20 million to take care of children living among drugs and drug dealers, and one of three to vote against establishing a new registry to keep track of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (“Lou Gehrig’s disease”).

Asked about both votes, Broun hauls out his Constitution and flips it open to Article I, Section 8. “We don’t have authority to create things like that,” he says. “This lists the functions of the federal government, and it’s about a page and a half long. I’d say most of the things this Congress does, we don’t actually have the authority to do.”

Broun worries that interpretation of the Constitution has been off for a very long time. “Maybe it was when they decided Marbury v. Madison when the courts hijacked the Constitution,” he says. “I think you can go back to John Adams with the Alien and Sedition Acts that passed when he was president. The thing is, human nature is such that people want to garner more power. What fuels the great growth of government—and I’m talking about more and more centralization from local governments to state governments, from state governments to the federal government—is that basic human nature.”

Broun doesn’t share his party’s thinking on what the U.S. should be doing during a “war on terror.” Asked if he agrees with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney that the biggest threat facing the country is Islamic terrorism, he shakes his head. “No,” he says, “our biggest threat is a lack of understanding of what the Constitution says and what the Founding Fathers meant for it to say. We’ve left that behind.”

Back in Georgia, Broun’s own party is plotting to replace him, beginning with the July 2008 primary for his seat. State Rep. Barry Fleming (R-Harlem) entered the race soon after the runoff and has out-fundraised Broun by about 9 to 1. Local pols expect Fleming to win.

“I wouldn’t be running if I thought there was sufficient leadership being exhibited by our congressman,” Fleming says. “I’m offering voters a choice: someone who’s sharp, well-spoken, and can articulate conservative ideas and then walk the walk in Congress.” The implication is that Broun is none of those things, and that his lonely votes against popular programs are a waste of a perfectly good Republican seat.

But opinion on the Hill doesn’t jibe with opinion among Georgia Republicans. After Broun’s victory, conservative columnist Robert Novak reported that incumbent Republican House members facing primary challenges were “terrified.” Last fall some Hill staffers and Rep. John Campbell (R-Calif.) told me to pay attention to Broun, saying he was turning heads at party conference meetings with his strict constructionist arguments.

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  • Brandybuck||

    That's all well and good, but what us Reasonoids want to know, is he a True Tolerant Cosmopolitan?

  • ||

    Damn, I thought we might have found the elusive libertarian Democrat.

  • jj||

    I'll probably be campaigning for Broun closer to the elections.

  • ||

    They have to be moral (according to the Bible), constitutional (according to the version he keeps in his suit pocket), ....

    Nice. The Bible comes first -- above the Constitution. That says everything that needs to be said about this person, regardless of whether or not he has other sensible policy positions.

    If you are an elected official who has taken the oath of office, the Constitution should always be your #1 considerations

  • stephen the goldberger||

    Beggers can't be choosers. This guy at least has the constitution SOMEWHERE on his radar screen.

  • highnumber||

    Ron Paul, Paul Broun, who's next - Ron Brawl? The Libertarian Latino Raul Pon?

    Wasn't there an LP candidate Jerry Kohn?

  • javier||

    my porn name (middle name and name of street) is Charlie Norwood. awesome!!

  • Sean W. Malone||

    I guess that would make my porn name

    Bill La Cienega... how odd.


    In other news, libertarian ideas are represented in congress by approximately less than 2 whole people. Sweet. We're movin on up!

  • ||

    Constitution-toting freshman Congressmen are a dime a dozen.

    Constitution-toting Congressmen who've served several terms, they're impressive. Though I don't know if the plural pronoun is appropriate in this case.

  • Colin||

    The wrong Dr. Paul, it seems, ran for president.

    I wonder if he's ever written a newsletter.

  • ||

    Ron Paul, Paul Broun, who's next?



    Broun Tron?

  • Danny||

    @ChicagoTom

    The article said that it had to match ALL of the criteria. It didn't say that if it was at least moral that it would be okay. All four criteria must be met, so they are equal. Who cares what order he checks them in.

  • ||

    In poking around, it looks like what did Whitehead in was the joke about bombing everything in Athens but the football team (and presumably UGA [the dog not the school]). It seems like a lot of people who live in Athens and would probably not vote in a Rep vs Rep run-off, went to the polls to make sure that Whitehead lost.

  • ||

    no thread about the crisis with gaza
    or the hole blown in the fence?
    nor the egyptian president's reaction?

  • jj||

    ChicagoTom:

    For me the Bible comes first. Way, way before the constitution. For me, the Bible clearly states that God gave people the freedom to choose how to run their lives, and that theft of freedom violates his commandments. 1 Samuel 8 is one of the first explicitly anarchist, anti-tax, capitalist documents. Well worth a read.

    I find much in the constitution to like. But I am more of the Lysander Spooner persuasion that it is at best a mild form of tyranny.

  • The Wine Commonsewer||

    Damn, I thought we might have found the elusive libertarian Democrat.

    Let us know how that search goes. :-)

  • The Cosmotarians||

    I guess that would make my porn name

    Bill La Cienega... how odd.


    Racist

  • Jesse Walker||

    no thread about the crisis with gaza
    or the hole blown in the fence?


    Matt posted one yesterday.

  • LarryA||

    For me the Bible comes first. Way, way before the constitution. For me, the Bible clearly states that God gave people the freedom to choose how to run their lives, and that theft of freedom violates his commandments.

    I may agree with you. Unfortunately most folks who say, "The Bible comes first" think that God made a terrible mistake in giving individuals free will. They want to rewrite the laws to force everyone to follow their brand of "Christian" dogma.

    All who disagree will be burned at the stake. To save their souls, of course.

  • Brandybuck||

    It's not the Bible *or* the Constitution. It's the Bible *and* the Constitution. They are not antithetical to each other. If you put the New Testament in the context of superceding the Old Testament, it's very libertarian anti-legalist document.

    I blame the Religious Right for the distorted view many people have of Christianity. There's nothing hostile in Christianity to liberty.

  • Seer||

    So our count is up to one and a half decent Republicans in all of Congress? (Half off for pro-war positions).

  • ||

    If you put the New Testament in the context of superceding the Old Testament, it's very libertarian anti-legalist document.

    Depends on your flavor of Christianity. To those who believe that the New Testament did not entirely supercede the Old, then reconciling to the Leviticus laws could get a little dicey.

  • Monkey Of Fear||

    My prefered Christianity is of the vanilla variety.

  • R C Dean||

    constitutional (according to the version he keeps in his suit pocket),

    Is his "version" different from the official one?

  • Danny||

  • ||

    >>I guess that would make my porn name

    Dick Kumquat. Beat that!

  • Scott Elmwood||

    No thanks, Dick!

  • Bill Cooke||

    So is he in the pocket of the NAB or is he just a retard for opposing the Sirius/XM merger?

  • ||

    My porn name is James 55th.
    What the FUCK?

  • Brandybuck||

    Maurice 44th Street?

  • ||

    I go with the "name of first pet you remember" formula, so I'm Brutus Calhoun.

    I like it!

  • Danny||

    If I use your method, de stijl, that would be "Sweetie-Pie Thomas"... Yikes.

  • Danny||

    What was this article about, again?

  • ||

    Why can't I own a canadian?

    Simple. These days we're too expensive.

    (Richard Slater. Charmed, I'm sure, ladies.)

  • ||

    I thought your porn name was the name of your first pet and the street you grew up on.

    Ladies, I'd like you to meet HERCULES BARBARA.
    *schwing*
    Yeah, you wanna touch it.

  • ||

    I thought your porn name was the name of your first pet and the street you grew up on.

    Irving Washington?

    Heh, it's not even intentional. I knew there was a reason I gave my guinea pig such a stupid name.

  • Muffit Whitby||

    I like the other porn name rule better.

  • Seer||

    Liam Pebblefield

  • Brandybuck||

    Biscuit Route 66?

  • satan||

    Dear Reason:

    This probably sounds unrelated to the current article (I didn't read the whole thing) but YOU GUYS SUCK. I mean every single member of the Reason team. If you are pretending that non-support for the real Dr. Paul is some kind of true, intellectual game (he really isn't good enough for you) than you are slowly losing the support of all libertarians.

    I very rarely talk in online comment sections but GOOD GOD you guys are worthless. The one single libertarian worth mentioning is ignored because he's an LRC libertarian, not a Fred-Thompson-supporting Cato libertarian. (Fred Thompson??? Didn't you guys write an article calling him a libertarian?) I used to like this website and magazine but if you are not unequivocally supporting Paul you are either controlled by the Kochtopus or not real libertarians.

    Screw you guys, I'm going home.

  • charlie||

    So this Broun guy is a real stickler for the constitution... just not the part of it that says only Congress can declare war (see: Iraq war). *Sigh*

    Predicting the "next Ron Paul" sounds to me an awful lot like predicting the "next Michael Jordan." Usually the one making the prediction ends up looking like an asshole.

  • alisa||

    Going by the pet rule...
    Moonbeam 53rd.

  • ||

    Reggie Jackson Clay, motherfuckers.

    Not being a tolerant cosmopolitan, my boyhood pet was a little black poodle I named Reggie Jackson, after his resemblance to local hero Reggie Jackson's head.

    I'm sure all those good white people across the bridge would have been offended, if I knew any. But they seemed confined there somehow.

  • ||

    Here is the link to see his voting record.

    http://projects.washingtonpost.com/congress/members/b001262/votes/

    I'm not sure if he's a fan of the Bill of Rights.

  • ||

    I come up (erm, so to speak) as either Alan Chestnut or Alan Lobo.

  • Someone Who Doesn\'t Want to L||

    Porn Star name (apparently the true purpose of the thread):

    Tazwell Airport

    (or Okes Airport, depending on the rule)

    I think I may bear the odd distinction of having an even less marketable porn name than those with numbers (i.e. 44th Street) in theirs!

    Brandybuck:

    If you put the New Testament in the context of superceding the Old Testament, it's very libertarian anti-legalist document.



    I think Christianity and Nietzche have pretty much the same relation to liberty. Both can be read pretty easily in one way to support individualism, or in another way to support authoritarianism.

    de stijl:

    In poking around, it looks like what did Whitehead in was the joke about bombing everything in Athens but the football team (and presumably UGA [the dog not the school]).



    I haven't yet forgiven Whitehead for his work on the Principia Mathematica.

    OK I started late, but I finished fuckin' strong. Plus I'm drunk! Good night, motherfuckerrrrrrrs!!!

  • The Wine Commonsewer||

    Raymond Bentley. Yeah.

    Has a nice Bondish ring to it.

    Shaddup, James Bondish.

  • ||

    my porn name (middle name and name of street) is Charlie Norwood. awesome!!

    Is that current street? If so, my porn star name is Christopher Tributary.

    Sounds kinda British and way too classy for porn. (But maybe just right for British porn ...)

    I thought your porn name was the name of your first pet and the street you grew up on.

    In that case, my porn name is Bingo Swan.

    That has a bit more of a porny zip to it.

  • ce||

    The king of pork, Robert Byrd, D-WV, also carries a constitution in his pocket.

    And don't listen to those Brandybuck hobbits, with all their nonsense about going around on boats.

  • ||

    Heidi Centuri by one rule. Carl Upper by the other.

  • ||

    Stevo: Christopher Tributary might work for some of the really weird stuff.

  • economist||

    satan
    Here, here! I'm still voting for the good doctor on Super Tuesday. However, he will not be nominated, and during the general election I will probably not even go out to vote. Still, fight the good fight.

  • Mitch||

    Seriously, what the hell is wrong with Reason? I'm really starting to wonder why I subscribed to this.

    They continue to post glowing coverage of people like Paul Broun and Fred Thompson who claim to be libertarian-leaning when it suits them, but they ignore any Libertarian Party candidates and write unfavorable opinions about Ron Paul. I understand that Ron Paul isn't perfect and I understand that Libertarian Party candidates have no real chance at election, but I fail to see how it helps anything to voice support for idiots like Fred Thompson and bible-toting Paul Broun.

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  • sacs birkin hermes||

    This lists the functions of the federal government, and it’s about a page and a half long

  • Sacs Chanel 2.55||

    The plush toys pictured below are black-market Fuwa, outlaws each of them

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