As an institution, you can't get much less respect from the public than the U.S. Congress does. Ask people why and they'll talk about under-the-table deals, lobbyists and in general not doing a whole lot to fix everyday problems of the working man. And that's too bad, because that's ignoring the fact that sometimes that shit gets truly ridiculous.
And we're talking "drunken bar brawl" ridiculous here.
There's a lot of tough talk on the floor of the House of Representatives, but how often do these loudmouths actually back it up with their fists? Almost never. Almost.
This brings us to the skirmish between congressmen Roger Griswold of Connecticut and Matthew Lyon of Vermont on Feb. 15, 1798. It all started when Griswold started pushing Lyon around by making frequent -- and at the time hilarious -- remarks about Lyon having to go into battle with a wooden sword, which back then was a way to accuse somebody of being a shitty soldier (sort of like asking a cop if he carries a toy gun).
"Yes, as a matter of fact, and I'll thank you not to make a fuss of it."
Defending your manhood was a big deal on the floor of Congress back in those days, so Lyon replied that he had been in many a fight with people from Griswold's state. Griswold's answer ("with your wooden sword?") was followed by Lyon spitting in Griswold's face.
It was on.
Despite having just mocked the man about that whole "wooden sword" business, Griswold immediately rushed for the unarmed Lyon with a hickory walking stick. Lyon was subsequently forced to endure the humiliating experience we all know of being clobbered by a piece of wood while at work.
However, the man's presumably cocaine-heightened 18th-century senses worked just as well for him as the Force. Lyon rushed for a nearby fireplace and equipped himself with a pair of iron tongs, which turned the tables of the battle, to the delight of the Vermont delegation.
The dude in the armchair appears to be having the time of his life.
The two were broken up but continued the fight a few minutes later in the halls outside the House chamber. Despite Lyon catching Griswold unarmed this time around, the reports show Griswold undoubtedly won the fight.
When the U.S. Senate absolutely does not want to get anything done, it has always relied on the filibuster. For those of you who don't remember any of your civics classes, the filibuster is when, in order to stop a popular piece of legislation from passing, a senator just delays the vote. By talking. Forever. He just keeps going until either supporters of the bill come up with the extra votes it takes to stop a filibuster, or the sun swallows the Earth.
"If elected, I promise to incessantly quote golf statistics until my opponents give up and go home."
Today the technique has advanced to where they don't require the filibustering side to actually give a speech that lasts for infinity -- the threat of filibuster is enough to do the job. But back in the old-timey era, if you wanted to stall a bill you'd better believe that you were expected to stand on your feet and start talking. Since actual relevant subjects run out pretty quickly, this means they would just start rambling. For instance, back in the 1930s, Sen. Huey Long (D-La.) filibustered several bills by using such tactics as "reading Shakespeare, reciting shrimp and oyster recipes, and talking about 'pot-likkers.' "
"No, I don't know what a pot-likker is. Why do you ask?"
He was so obnoxious that the Senate passed a rule specifically because of his behavior to require that debate be "germane to the issue being debated."
The king of senatorial jackassery, however, has to be Strom Thurmond (D-S.C.), who holds the record for the Senate's longest filibuster: 24 hours and 18 minutes. What got his panties in a wad so much that he chose to speak for over a day on the Senate floor? The Civil Rights Act of 1957.
"I wasn't nearly as kindly as I look."
But his ultimate enemy that day? His bladder. If the senator has to leave the Senate floor to go take a leak, his speech is over, and so is the filibuster.
That's why, in order to keep the civil rights dragon at bay, Thurmond prepared for his filibuster by taking a steam shower to sweat out any excess fluids. For 24 hours, he rambled: He read the Constitution and the phone book and ranted random musings about random shit.
Oh, and just in case his bladder turned on him, he made an intern hold a bucket in the Senate cloakroom, so that Thurmond could piss in it while keeping one foot on the Senate floor. As internships go, suddenly making photocopies doesn't seem so bad.
"At least these are filled with coffee."
He finally gave up, and the bill passed. The people of his home state knew he had done his best, however, and they proceeded to re-elect Thurmond every six years until 2003, when he died at 100 years of age.
Every legislative body everywhere has a rule that a certain number of members have to be present in order to vote -- otherwise, two dudes could get together and vote themselves king. Back in the day, you needed exactly half of the members of the U.S. House to answer "present" during a roll call to achieve quorum (enough people present to act). But this led to the truly idiotic phenomenon known as the disappearing quorum. When a piece of legislation came up that members didn't like, they just wouldn't answer when the roll was called. So they'd get counted as absent even though they were plainly sitting right there in front of the House speaker.
At one point in time, Congress had the same high standard of discourse as third-grade recess.
This tactic successfully stalled or complicated several fairly dry bills over the years, most often causing the speaker to take roll numerous times until enough people would admit to existing to constitute a quorum. One time they had to call roll 101 times in the same day to get a bill passed.
Such was the unofficial law of the land for 100 years, until Jan. 29, 1890. The new speaker of the House, Thomas Brackett Reed (R-Maine), figured "enough of this bullshit" and cracked down on the horseplay. Reed implemented a rule where you could -- gasp -- just mark a member as "present but not voting" if he was there but refusing to participate. He'd still count toward quorum, and the vote could continue. It was a revolutionary idea that took Congress only a century to figure out.
Congress: Getting it right eventually, occasionally.
Sure enough, Reed's move flummoxed the shit out of the Democrats. When the minority party attempted to block the inclusion of four new elected Republicans from the South, including two African-American senators, Reed called roll and noted that those not speaking up would get counted "present but not voting" unless they declared out loud that they were in fact not present.
All hell broke loose. The congressmen made a rush toward the speaker's podium (with one ex-Confederate congressman actually leapfrogging from desk to desk), where Reed calmly waited for them and/or ignored them. Some congressmen resorted to hiding under their desks to avoid being counted. Others tried to run away, but Reed had another ace up his sleeve: He had the House doors locked long enough to have his way with the Democrats, including congressman "Buck" Kilgore of Texas, whom Reed "calmly" marked "present but not voting" as he kicked down the door to escape.
Congressman Kilgore would go on to invent every Texan stereotype.