By Otto Turton - 09/28/05 12:00 AM EDT
When you stand in the shadow of the Capitol and see the activity of busy lawmakers and congressional aides, the seriousness of the legislative process and its importance to the country hits home.
Take the matter of camel hair.
More specifically, the suspension of taxes upon camel hair. On May 18, Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.) introduced three bills addressing the issue, which had until then been largely ignored by his colleagues. The bills addressed “certain camel hair” (H.R. 2462), “waste of camel hair” (H.R. 2463) and “noils of camel hair” (H.R. 2468). Simmons clearly wanted to cover all of his bases.
In the process of contacting Simmons to ask what motivated him to unveil these measures, The Hill came up against a perplexing obstacle, Simmons’s chief of staff, Todd Mitchell. Mitchell did not appreciate an attempt to speak to Simmons directly, expressing outrage and explaining, “It is my prerogative to decide who speaks to Simmons.” The concept of “public servant” seemingly lost on Mitchell, he continued by suggesting that Simmons “probably had no idea what legislation you were talking about.”
Despite those obstacles, Simmons did respond, and contrary to staff presumptions happily described the legislation in question.
He said that his bills are intended to protect a local factory that uses camel hair and that this factory is among “the last manufacturers of high-quality wool and worsted apparel in the country.” Unfortunately for Simmons, his bills are languishing in the House Ways and Means Committee, which has shown more interest in reforming Social Security than changing the country’s policy on camels.
Simmons noted that Hurricane Katrina matters have leapfrogged his bills on the congressional agenda. But he remains positive about the prospects of his bills, saying that, if the opportunity presents itself, “we’re ready to go.”
Unusual legislation has always had a presence in the gallant House of Representatives.
In May, Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) introduced legislation mandating that a bittering agent be added to engine coolant and antifreeze so that they become “unpalatable.”
The question, at first glance is: Who is drinking antifreeze, and who thinks it’s delicious? The answer, actually, is sobering. More than 90,000 pets and 4,000 children ingest the substance annually because they are drawn to the chemical’s sweet smell. Ingestion of antifreeze is often fatal.
Still, the antifreeze bill has attracted controversy, but not the kind that gets mentioned on the evening news.
Four co-sponsors of the measure have withdrawn their support: Reps. George Miller (D-Calif.), Sam Farr (D-Calif.), Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and Gene Green (D-Texas). Officials in Green’s and Farr’s office explained that this year’s bill, unlike previous similar measures, would require the use of a chemical agent that is produced outside the United States.
Adding to the intrigue, Ackerman’s office says the congressman has never changed the substance of the bill since its introduction in May.
On Feb. 13, 2001, Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) attempted to suspend tax upon fructooligosaccharides (H.R. 603), an alternative sweetener to sugar.
“Fructooligosaccharides” was thankfully abbreviated to FOS for the sake of the resolution, but, despite having a decent acronym, its tax break did not pass the House.
Tancredo has an illustrious history when it comes to submitting quirky legislation. In 2004, he attempted to exclude the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse from the endangered-species list (H.R. 4466). When questions arose in relation to this legislation, there was slight confusion as to whether Preble’s Meadow was home to a mouse or a moose. Tancredo straightened the matter out but remarked that “if a moose is being taken off the list, then I’ll take the credit!”
While both Simmons’s and Tancredo’s legislation have yet to pass, the same cannot be said for other bizarre legislation that has succeeded in slipping through Congress.
Filibustering is generally deemed more of a preoccupation with senators than busting dance moves. However, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) may disagree. On Jan. 21, 2004, Frist submitted a resolution recognizing 2004 as the 50th anniversary of rock ’n’ roll (S.R. 285), basing this judgment upon the fact that Elvis Presley recorded “That’s All Right” on July 5, 1954. The bill struck a blow against doubters of Congress’s modernity and promptly passed.
Such a foray into the world of music was not a first for Congress. On Jan. 3, 1989, then-Rep. Gerald Solomon (R-N.Y.) submitted a resolution that Fort Crailo in Rensselaer, N.Y., should be designated as the home of Yankee Doodle (H.C.R. 16). Solomon supported this resolution with a 904-word written argument persuasive enough for it to be approved. Solomon died in 2001.
Former Rep. James Traficant (D-Ohio) turned Jan. 16, 1994, into National Good Teen Day, (H.J. Res. 75), citing the “good which is inherent in all human beings” as reasoning for the resolution. Unfortunately for Traficant, such “inherent” goodness temporarily evaded him, when, in 2002, he was found guilty of bribery, racketeering, tax evasion, and obstruction of justice and consequently sentenced to eight years in jail. One would imagine a National Good Representatives Day was not on his agenda.
For those who take an unhealthy interest in obscure law, there is a book that serves their needs perfectly. It’s called You May Not Tie an Alligator to a Fire Hydrant by Jeff Koon and Andy Powell. The book started as a high-school project and has resulted in a list of “101 dumb laws” and a website (www.dumblaws.com) that is visited by thousands of people each month.
In researching his book, Powell was alarmed by the “volume of crazy material.” Powell, the self-proclaimed “Dumb Law Guy,” got frustrated about the persistence of idiotic legislation, believing it underestimated people’s intelligence.
The book highlights an array of colorful laws, such as one that reads, “A U.S. citizen can take possession of any foreign uninhabited island, as long as it contains bird droppings.” For those who doubt the legitimacy of such a law, Koon and Powell are good enough to provide an explanation. Apparently “guano was once a valuable fertilizer for farmers, and to obtain as much as possible at a low cost, the U.S. government passed this law in the mid 1800’s.”
While this legislation may seem unbelievable, some federal laws can be can be trumped at the state level. Two such laws mentioned by Koon and Powell threaten to outdo federal laws in terms of their obscurity and wackiness. There is the case of Alaska, where “it is considered an offense to push a live moose out of a moving airplane.” Then there is a law in Alabama that states that it is illegal to “wear a fake moustache that causes laughter in church.”
Many lawmakers serve in their state legislatures before coming to Washington, so don’t be surprised if the next controversial bill pending before Congress addresses a moose or a moustache.