A History Of Congressional Stunts

Oct 26, 2019
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This week a group of House Republicans surged into a classified briefing room on Capitol Hill to try to disrupt the impeachment inquiry.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MATT GAETZ: We're going to go and see if we can get inside.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Let's do it. Let's do it.

GAETZ: So let's see if we can get in.

SIMON: Democrats criticized it as a political stunt, and they ought to know. Lawmakers have long used stunts to try and redirect the debate on Capitol Hill. NPR's congressional correspondent Susan Davis has this report.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: What's a stunt without a prop? A copy machine, a Dr. Seuss book and four-inch heels have all played roles in some of Congress's most memorable political stunts in recent years.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAND PAUL: We've brought our copy machine in case they would let us copy the bill, but it looks like we're not going to be able to copy it.

DAVIS: Kentucky Senator Rand Paul pushed a photocopy machine across the capital in 2017 in search of House Republicans' Obamacare replacement bill. He never got a copy. It didn't exist, and he knew it. But he did get the press's attention, which was the whole point.

ANTONIA FERRIER: It is about driving media. And it really typically is not done to drive an outcome. It is to show you're in the fight.

DAVIS: Antonia Ferrier is a Republican strategist who worked for six Republican lawmakers in both the House and Senate, most recently for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. She says in politics, it's only a stunt when the other party is doing it.

FERRIER: (Laughter) Of course, of course, of course. No, I sometimes wonder if there - there are times I think you have to be a little cognizant of the fact that it is just a stunt.

DAVIS: In 2016, House Democrats staged a 26-hour sit-in on the House floor, violating the rules of the chamber to protest inaction on gun violence. Georgia Democratic Congressman John Lewis, a civil rights icon, led the protest.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN LEWIS: When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to do something about it in a nonviolent fashion. And that's what we did.

DAVIS: Then-Speaker Paul Ryan saw it this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAUL RYAN: We are not going to allow stunts like this to stop us from carrying out the people's business.

DAVIS: But party leaders aren't above taking part in a stunt.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAXINE WATERS: I yield one minute to Leader Pelosi.

DAVIS: Then-Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in 2018 bent the courtesy floor rules granted to party leaders for one-minute speeches in order to call for passage of the DREAM Act, a bill to provide a path to citizenship to people brought to the U.S. illegally as children.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NANCY PELOSI: Why are we here if not to protect the patriotic young people who are determined to contribute and to strengthen America? So I'm going to go on as long as my leadership minute allows.

DAVIS: Pelosi's magic minute went on for eight hours, setting a record for the longest floor speech in House history. And she did it all while standing in four-inch heels. Now normally, speaking stunts are reserved for senators. Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz held the Senate floor for more than 21 hours in 2013 to call for defunding Obamacare. Cruz had to go to some unusual lengths to keep everyone's attention.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TED CRUZ: And I love this story, and so I'm going to read it to you. Sam-I-Am. That Sam-I-Am, that Sam-I-Am, I do not like that Sam-I-Am.

DAVIS: Yes, that's "Green Eggs And Ham" on the Senate floor. Former Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott loved a good stunt. Back in 2002, he brought 100 bloodhounds to the Senate side of the Capitol to sniff out bills Democrats were blocking. Here's Ferrier again.

FERRIER: He always used to say that he'd prefer a picture in the paper far better than being quoted in a story because the image of doing something was far more impactful to his constituents back home and to your own side than any sort of full story.

DAVIS: The full story on political stunts is they rarely result in their intended outcome. Democrats never saw gun legislation or the DREAM Act passed. Republicans never defunded or repealed Obamacare. And Republicans won't be able to stop the impeachment inquiry. Susan Davis, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.