Few phrases in all the English language can equal the crisp, alliterative melody found in the words "contempt of Congress": the staccato sounds burst with vibrant energy. Yet the term denotes—legally, at least—nothing more than another punishable offense, an outlawed game that very few people ever get a chance to play anyway.
Fortunately, Webster provides us with a broader definition of the phrase and makes contempt of Congress a game any number can play—a game that, so far, is perfectly legal.
Contempt—"the feeling with which one regards anything considered mean, vile, or worthless"—seems to be such an appropriate reaction to Congress that any attempt to regulate or prohibit such feelings would prove logistically impossible. Enforcement officers would have to be stationed in every office building, barbershop, tavern, and double bed; the courts would lag decades behind; prisons would quickly overflow; and within months the entire economy would probably grind to a halt. Clearly, the free flow of venom from the American people to their elected representatives is in the national interest. And, just as clearly, the play-at-home version of Contempt of Congress is fast becoming a national pastime.
The legislative branch of the federal government has not always been such a popular object of public derision. No single segment of the government can hope to monopolize public disfavor for very long: the competition is simply too fierce. Nevertheless, each segment strives relentlessly for the highest honor of all in what is laughingly called public service—the coveted Mantle of the Equine Posterior.
Six or seven years ago that mantle was bestowed upon the Pentagon: its blustering, blundering ways had changed the term "military intelligence" into an often-used but in fact self-contradictory bit of nonsense on the order of, say, "jumbo shrimp." Since then the award has changed hands dozens of times. Recently, Jimmy Carter has made an impressive bid with a stunning portrayal of a man whose reach has exceeded his grasp. In spite of this, however, my own vote for the honor must go to Congress.
Congressional claims for the prize are indeed impressive. They have, for instance, given the language a new nonsense phrase that makes "military intelligence" seem quite flavorless. The new phrase, of course, is "congressional ethics."
Moreover, they have somehow parlayed public bemusement with the irony of that term into a pay raise for themselves—a raise that purportedly was needed to offset proposed limits on outside income. (The piquant implications of that logic are worth the careful study of any aspiring used car salesman.)
Although contempt for Congress may be reaching a new peak of popularity among the public at large, a certain core of cognoscenti has long since been moved to song by that elected assemblage of knuckleheads and merry-andrews. The tradition I speak of now goes back at least to Mark Twain, who reckoned before the turn of the century that there was probably "no distinctly native American criminal class, except Congress."
Twain's assessment, however accurate it might be, is nonetheless disturbing because it leaves Congress with no real function and certainly no redeeming social value. It took a soul no less charitable than Will Rogers to find any good at all in the legislators, and he only allowed that they were the best of the "Professional Joke Makers." "Read some of the Bills that they have passed," he once wrote, "if you think they ain't Joke makers." But the cowboy philosopher's attempt to lasso Congress has two hitches in it. One, as Rogers himself noted, was that "every one of the jokes these Birds makes is a LAW and hurts somebody (generally everybody)." The second hitch: congressional humor is dreadfully expensive.
Taxpayers shell out nearly 40 million dollars a year in congressional base salaries alone. This means that Britain maintains a Queen with one-tenth of what we spend on 535 drones. In addition, each one of those drones is allotted almost a quarter of a million dollars a year to hire a personal staff, thus raising the ante to over 185 million dollars a year.
That figure is all the more remarkable for what it does not include. It does not include travel expenses for our pathologically peripatetic members of Congress. It does not include monies spent on the perquisites and lackeys needed to persuade congressmen, against all odds, that they are in fact important and respected public officials. It does not even include basic salaries for all congressional employees, a group that has almost doubled in size over the last 10 years.
Although the exact cost of Congress is difficult to ascertain, there can be little doubt that the total figure is unconscionably enormous. Nevertheless, our representatives are beginning to bandy about the idea of public funding for congressional elections: we must not only underwrite the operating expenses of the gravy train—we must pay for their tickets as well. Obviously, the legislators' sense of humor is just as pungent as it was in Rogers' day.
But since we seem destined to get little besides buffoonery from Congress, why not streamline the institution to get that humor as economically as possible? One extremely cost-effective plan would be the replacement of all the members and staffers of Congress with a single professional comedian of recognized ability. We could have one headliner instead of all those second bananas and save billions of dollars.
My own nomination for the post of Congress would have to be Henny Youngman. He is a trooper and a craftsman; he already has a large following that embraces a wide cross-section of the American public; and he has a large amount of material at his disposal (so the jokes would not be as repetitive as they are now). Moreover, I have been told that his fees are very reasonable.
Imagine it: once again great throngs would flock to Washington, happy and proud to see Congress in action. The Capitol Building would once again house something vital and cease to be a mere architectural popover.
Picture it, for it's a grand sight: the galleries are packed, the lights dim, a small child squeals with delight, "Look, Mommy, it's Henny Youngman!" A neatly dressed figure clutching a violin strolls out under the single spotlight. He tucks the instrument under his chin and scratches out a few notes, sizing up the audience. In a moment he looks up into the galleries, grins, stretches out his arms and barks: "Take my congressman—please!" the spectators roar their approval. It's only one line, but it's a smasheroo, guaranteed to bring down the house. And, with any luck, to bring down the Senate as well.
Mr. Fasolino is a free-lance writer.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "A Fairly Modest Proposal".