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This Time It's Personal

Maybe a relative is ill. Or was killed in cold blood. Whatever the issue, if a congressman is involved, that experience can make for passionate argument and some amazing political theater.

June 04, 1996|GREGG ZOROYA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WASHINGTON — What finally drove Rep. Richard J. Durbin to make law were four hours spent on a flight from Phoenix to Chicago crammed between two chain-smokers, his suit soaking up the stink, the acrid cloud wafting toward a mother and her infant and an elderly couple a few rows away.

"I thought: This just doesn't make any sense," recalls the Illinois Democrat, whose father was a heavy smoker and died of lung cancer.

When Durbin introduced his 1987 proposal to partially ban smoking on domestic flights, he watched members of every ideological stripe, all frequent fliers, rise to plead for relief from the haze.

And each vignette from a congressman with a personal tale to tell boosted the bill's momentum. The measure passed by five votes.

It was a lesson Durbin wouldn't soonzforget: "People who come to issues with personal experience usually bring a level of commitment and a passion which makes a significant difference."

He sees it as a strength of democracy, a Congress drawing on a rich diversity of experiences, acting occasionally as flesh-and-blood lawmakers. Others call it the disease-of-the-week syndrome, a manner of drafting federal law according to whatever misfortune has befallen some member of Congress or a family member.

"These legislators have undue influence, many of them, and because they're elected, they can get attention for problems that may not be as serious as they portray them. But because it's very personal to them, their colleagues will frequently give them the vote," says Larry Sabato, political science professor at the University of Virginia.

Still, it can be terrific theater on issues ranging from gun control to health care to cats and dogs.

Lawmaking driven by tragedy or experience creates the most dramatic moments on the Hill with members publicly vetting private demons for God and C-Span, all to get their point across.

The strongest example recently was the 11th-hour effort by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici to augment an otherwise modest health care bill with a provision to vastly expand health insurance coverage for mental illness. As Domenici, of New Mexico, took the floor on April 18, his colleagues were well aware that one of his eight children has a mental disorder.

"Mental illness is not due to sinful behavior. It is not due to a weakness or frail character. These illnesses are real," Domenici argued. Failure to treat it like any other illness, he said, "represents one of the real continuing injustices in America today."

As Domenici finished, other senators rose to speak.

"Let me just tell you that about four years ago a most beautiful girl in our family, the niece of my wife . . . left our midst," said Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.). "She one day decisively purchased a pistol . . . went to an isolated field, removed her shoes, sat in a crouched position . . . and blew her chest away."

When the amended bill was put to a vote, it passed 100-0.

There are other occasions when internally driven insights cut sharply in both directions.

With hands trembling and voice fracturing, Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, the nephew of a slain president and senator, invoked the suffering of his family and scolded colleagues in March for seeking to lift a ban on assault weapons.

"Families like mine all across the country know all too well what damage weapons can do. . . . Shame on you," the Rhode Island Democrat shouted. "My God, all I have to say to you is play with the devil, die with the devil!"

But the podium-pounding response from Gerald B.H. Solomon, a Republican from New York, proved just as electrifying.

"My wife lives alone five days a week. She has a right to defend herself (with firearms) when I am not there," Solomon bellowed, emphasizing his final five words, "and don't you forget it!"

The bill to lift the ban passed the House by a solid margin.

"I don't think it's incongruous at all to let our own personal experience guide your policymaking," Kennedy said later. "It gives you your own sense of authority."

And that authority can extend to any subject.

For nearly two hours last month, House members bared souls over whether to allow the elderly in subsidized housing the right to own pets. The amendment was offered by Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) who gained insight from her companionship with a cat named Slippers.

A Republican from Michigan, Vernon Ehlers, disclosed his allergy to animals, particularly dogs, adding that when he heard of Maloney's idea to allow pets in nursing homes "I had an involuntary shudder. . . . I have never talked about my handicap before."

The final word was left to Rep. Harold L. Volkmer (D-Mo.) and his ode to Old Bear, a feline friend of 16 years: "I do not have a wife anymore at home. I have got Bear," Volkmer remarked from the floor. "Bear is a heck of a lot better as a friend and companion than some of the members of this body."

The measure passed 375 to 48.

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