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How Lawmakers Lost Their Sense Of Shame

Outside the state Capitol in Annapolis, Md., last year: Someone who'd had enough of what has been going on.
Mark Wilson
Getty Images
Outside the state Capitol in Annapolis, Md., last year: Someone who'd had enough of what has been going on.

Connie Johnson is not afraid to be outrageous. The Democratic state senator from Oklahoma has watched in frustration for several years now as colleagues have rammed through bills limiting women's reproductive rights.

She tried debating and making speeches. Finally, earlier this month, she thought of something that made her point more clearly, or at least more graphically.

She introduced an amendment that would define life as beginning not at conception, but at "ejaculation."

"It wasn't until I got graphic that people finally heard what I was saying," Johnson says. "It was wonderful. If this is what it took to draw attention — to draw the world's attention to Oklahoma — I'm willing to do it."

Other legislators have used similarly provocative means to underline their point that bills addressing reproduction seem to be targeting women unfairly.

The Virginia Senate, for instance, last month rejected by two votes a measure, offered by Democrat Janet Howell, that would have required men to undergo a rectal exam and a cardiac stress test before they could be prescribed drugs for erectile dysfunction. Howell's measure may have been a stunt, but it was also intended as a serious comment on the underlying measure being debated, which would have required women to undergo an intravaginal ultrasound exam prior to an abortion.

These bills themselves are part of a larger trend. Politicians have always thrived on attention. In the age of reality shows and instant hype through Twitter and cable coverage, however, it appears there are no longer any limits on what they are willing to say or do.

"There's always been an element of grandstanding in the legislative process," says Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College. "If you're eager for attention, the new electronic environment makes it easier for such activities to get attention."

The New Media Environment

Politicians have always said things that are shocking. But now titillating words and deliberately agitating bills can resonate well beyond their states or the halls of Congress as they're picked up instantly by blogs and cable.

"If nothing else, measures like these are answered prayers for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert," Pitney says.

Shouting at the president or wagging your finger at his face may still draw condemnation. But it's also proven to be a path to success in fundraising and book sales. You may even wind up a folk hero with your image sold on T-shirts.

The old distinctions drawn between legislative "workhorses" and "show horses" are gone, says Chris Cooper, a political scientist at Western Carolina University.

When Democratic Reps. Alan Grayson and Anthony Weiner lost their seats over the past year or so, their colleagues mourned their loss — not because of their legislative achievements, which were thin, but because they were considered among the party's most effective "shouters" on cable news shows.

"Legislators have always introduced wacky bills and supported some odd stances," Cooper says. "Now, making a particular issue or stance rise in the public consciousness can be a really successful strategy toward moving the public closer to your way of thinking."

Notoriety Comes Easy

It's not always clear whether "out there" statements are intentionally designed to attract attention, or were unexpectedly picked up by national media eager to highlight political excess.

This week, Indiana state Rep. Bob Morris gained instant national notoriety with his argument that the Girl Scouts subvert "traditional American family values."

Morris has stuck to his guns, but other politicians caught up in a trap of their own words' making have ended up apologizing. Some may have originally meant what they said — but they perhaps never intended their words to travel so far, so fast.

That was obviously the case for Rep. John Sullivan, R-Okla., who complained at a Bixby town hall meeting on Wednesday that there was no way to get senators to pass the House version of the federal budget "other than me going over there with a gun and holding it to their head and maybe killing a couple of them."

Sullivan illustrated his remarks with a firearms gesture, but he quickly apologized when he was called on them by a national news organization, the liberal blog Talking Points Memo.

Earlier this month, Alabama state Sen. Shadrack McGill, a Republican, suggested that "biblical principle" was involved in keeping salaries for teachers modest.

McGill defended a 62 percent increase in legislative pay but said teachers didn't need a similar pay hike because they weren't as likely to be bribed. Raising their salaries would simply attract people for education who didn't have a true calling, he said.

After his remarks drew national attention, McGill said his "lighthearted comment" had been misconstrued.

Ten or 20 years ago, startling statements might be ignored if they didn't happen to get picked up by the relatively few beat reporters paying attention to a statehouse or congressional delegation, says Thad Kousser, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego.

Today, there are fewer such traditional beat reporters, but that doesn't matter because anything might be picked up by a cellphone camera and then the blogosphere.

"What your friend thinks is worth linking to is probably very different than what Walter Cronkite thought was worth reporting," says Cooper, the Western Carolina professor.

No More Norms

State legislators introduce, on average, more than 100,000 bills a year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Most of these are earnest policy proposals, but there have always been "press release" bills introduced to make a point. And legislators have always liked the attention a celebrity can bring by testifying at a hearing, even if he or she isn't exactly a policy expert.

The current proliferation of flamboyant statements by lawmakers mostly has to do with changes in the broader culture and media environment, says Alan Rosenthal, a veteran observer of state legislative behavior at Rutgers University.

But they're also part and parcel of the larger breakdown of discipline within political institutions themselves, he says. Legislative leaders no longer ride herd over their caucuses as they used to, and junior members no longer feel their best long-term strategy is to remain quiet in the back.

"Now, it's everybody for himself," Rosenthal says. "Nobody tells me how to behave."

Make It New

And legislators now have to stretch the boundaries further. There are more opportunities for attention, but also a lot more competition. Like headline writers, legislators have to work harder to come up with language and concepts that will stand out.

Johnson, the Oklahoma state senator, says she might steal a page from state Rep. Yasmin Neal, a freshman Democrat in Georgia, who offered a bill this week parodying abortion legislation that would limit vasectomies for men, except in cases where they were needed to prevent death or "impairment of a major bodily function."

Neal received national attention for her idea, with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution publishing an account called Vasectomy Bill Goes Viral.

But now it's been done. Johnson would have to come up with something new and startling to repeat the success she enjoyed with her own ejaculation legislation.

"That brings up the trade-off for legislators," says Kousser, the UCSD political scientist. "Introduce these bills and the blogosphere may love you, but staff and your fellow legislators start to think you are a blowhard."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alan Greenblatt
Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.