Congressional fasting: A brief history

The Congressional Black Caucus brought one of the most basic forms of protest back to Capitol Hill this week: fasting. Chairwoman Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.) were joined by actress-activist Mia Farrow on Tuesday to announce that the CBC would lead a fast to protest the humanitarian crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan.

Payne fasted for four days last week, and Lee said she would begin fasting Tuesday night. Other members were planning on fasting throughout the week.

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For her part in the cause, Farrow had just finished a 12-day fast that she cut short of her three-week goal because “my blood sugar dropped to 30, and 20 is a coma,” she said.

Payne said the caucus was planning to send out a “Dear Colleague” letter Tuesday asking all lawmakers to fast for Darfur.

While it’s less common than making a flip chart, fasting has been a tool that Congress members have used to attract attention to an issue. (Although it looks to be more of a House tactic than a Senate one; Associate Senate Historian Don Ritchie said his files show no record of any senators fasting for a policy issue.)

Anthony Wallis in the Office of the House Historian found these recent examples:

• October 2007: Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.) fasts to demand a reduction in global poverty. He says, “I am convinced that if more Americans learn about the hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions of lives that can be saved through debt relief, they will see this as something we ought to do out of the goodness of our hearts.”

• March 1994: Then-Rep. Tony Hall (D-Ohio) organizes 15 members of Congress to fast in protest of world hunger.

• April 1993: Hall ends a 22-day fast he started to protest a budget decision to cut the Select Committee on Hunger. He says, “With all the work we did on the Select Committee on Hunger, nothing has drawn more attention to this issue than this fast in the past three weeks.”

Wallis also found that a few members of Congress have fasted for personal reasons.

• 1977: Then-Rep. Andrew Young (D-Ga.) fasts in the hope of finding clarity in difficult decisions he has to make, such as whether to accept a nomination to become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

• 1987: Then-Rep. George Hansen (R-Idaho) fasts while in jail for falsifying financial disclosure statements. Protesting the treatment he receives from federal authorities, he says he is “fasting just like Christ.”

Payne and Farrow both said they inspired each other to launch this latest congressional hunger strike.

“If she can do it with her frail body, I can do it with mine,” Payne said.

They both said they downed gallons of water while fasting. Farrow said she got through her 12-day fast by thinking of the people “for whom I was doing this” and by blogging about the experience.

“It was actually a very spiritual time,” Farrow said.