Debating the Bailout, Torturing Language
By Dana Milbank
The American people need a bailout -- from toxic metaphors.
Rep. Paul Broun, a Georgia Republican, was downright earthy in his imagery this morning as he rose to denounce the financial bailout package before the House. "Madam Speaker, this is a huge cow patty with a piece of marshmallow stuck in the middle of it," he declared. "I'm not going to eat that cow patty."
"The members will be relieved," responded Barney Frank, the Democrats' floor leader for the bill, "to know I have no matching metaphor."
Frank must have been the only one without a rhetorical cow patty to dump on the House floor this morning.
Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich) found a precedent for the bailout bill in Russian lit. "The choice is stark and it was put forth in the book by Dostoevsky, in the Brothers Karamazov," he informed his peers. "The grand inquisitor came to Jesus and said, 'If you wish to subject the people, give them miracle, mystery and authority but above all give them bread.'"
Rep. John Abney Culberson (R-Texas) disagreed. He thought the proper metaphor resided in the 16th century. "We're creating a King Henry here that will buy any type of financial instrument he wants from anywhere in the world owned by anybody," he said.
Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a Texas Democrat, thought the problem was skin deep. "Not even Avon or Mary Kay can compete with the cosmetics in this bill," he asserted.
Rep. Dan Lundgren (R-Calif), one of relatively few speakers in support of the legislation, encouraged lawmakers to think about the seaside. "Years ago, when I was much younger, I was a lifeguard," he boasted. "And I recall one of the first lessons you learn as a lifeguard is if you know there is a dangerous undertow, you get the people back on the beach and out of the water."
As the House took up the bailout package this morning, supporters of the unpopular bill were reluctant to take up the cause on the floor because, as Rep. Gary Miller (R-Calif) put it, "this is probably the toughest vote any of us has taken since we've been in Congress." To speak in favor of it, agreed Rep. Mel Watt (D-NC), is "just not fun."
Behind the scenes, leaders in both parties scrambled for votes in support of the bill. On the floor, the demagogues and zealots dominated the debate.
"I would move to adjourn so we don't do this terrible thing to our nation," Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) said at the start of the debate before 9 a.m. The "terrible thing" in Gohmert's mind was the bailout legislation, and his motion to adjourn went down, 394 votes to eight.
But, on the positive side, if Gohmert's motion had passed, he would have saved the nation from some truly bankrupt phrases.
Rep. Adam Putnam of Florida, a carrot-topped member of the GOP leadership once unkindly described by a colleague as a "Howdy Doody-lookin' nimrod," started out with a fortune cookie. "There's no an old Chinese proverb: 'May you live in interesting times,'" Putnam informed his colleagues. "These are interesting and remarkable times."
The times were made all the interesting and remarkable by McCotter, who, after invoking Dostoevsky and Jesus, reminded his colleagues, "during the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, the slogan was peace, land and bread. Today you are being asked to choose between bread and freedom."
Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va) had a messianic figure other than Jesus on his mind. "Thank you, Barney Frank, for saving the economy!" he said.
But proponents had trouble mustering enthusiasm for a $700 billion taxpayer giveaway to Wall Street, because, as Frank put it, "rarely have the members had so many reasons for wishing we weren't here."
Indeed, those few proponents who did go to the floor to voice support for the bill did so apologetically.
"I'm not here in defense of Wall Street fat cats," said Rep. Paul Kanjorski (D-Pa), who felt it necessary to resort to the old typing drill: "It is a time for all good men to come to the defense of our country."
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc), a former free-marketeer, tied himself in a knot as he announced: "This bill offends my principles but I'm going to vote for this bill to preserve my principles." Before people could digest that, he added: "This is a Herbert Hoover moment."
Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) denounced the "mother of all bailouts," while Rep. Gresham Barrett (R-SC) disclosed that "my daddy always told me you can't borrow your way out of debt."
The high-minded quoted Benjamin Franklin; "They that can give up liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither," said Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind). Others quoted action heroes. "My governor often says, 'I'll be back,'" said California Republican Darryl Issa. "I have no doubt I'll be back. . . trying to fix the problems next year that we don't fix here today."
And Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo) was a one-man train wreck of colliding metaphors as he invoked animal imagery ("the horns of a dilemma. . . two sharp, shiny points we could impale ourselves on"), meteorological imagery ("the sky was going to fall") and weapons imagery ("it's nice to take a bullet for the team").
The verbal misfires ricocheted across the chamber: Asleep at the switch!. . . The worm turns! . . . Russian roulette . . A financial gun to the head. . . Pull the trigger!. . .Take the bullets! . . Jumping off this precipice. . . Get our house in order."
The embattled proponents of the legislation pushed back, proving that they, too, could torture their imagery. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi argued that the crisis snuck "up on us, so silently, almost on little cat's feet." And Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) urged that "we don't allow the sky to fall on America's middle class and poor folks."
But is it OK if the sky falls on the cow patties?
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