A Republican lawmaker told me at the GOP convention in St. Paul that he wanted to outlaw gangs.
Okay, I thought. Aren’t there more appropriate issues for the feds to worry about? Energy? Fannie? Freddie?
I presumed he was talking about the Bloods, the Crips and MS-13.
Hardly. You’ve heard of Gangs of New York? Well, that’s nothing compared to Gangs of the Senate.
I should have known that’s what he meant. There is nothing that strikes more fear in the hearts of Senate leaders than legislative gangs. And they’re back.
Every year or two, Congress is consumed with what seems to be the issue of our time – these gangs tend to create strange alliances around this single theme, be it Social Security, immigration or judicial nominations. The more intransigent Democrats and Republicans are on a topic, the more likely it will harvest a gang.
Enter the energy debate. It is the penultimate issue facing the country today. So it’s no surprise it helped conceive the “Gang of 10,” composed of five Democrats and five Republicans.
And on Capitol Hill, gangs roaming the streets of Compton are cherubs compared with Gangs of the Senate.
Typically bipartisan, they threaten to upset order in party caucuses. And this year, the new gang in town is trying to forge a compromise on energy legislation. Partisan Republicans fear it’s threatening to blow up a political advantage they feel they gained in August. And as the Senate prepares to wrestle with looming energy legislation, the size of this gang has swelled from 10 to perhaps as many as 30.
I could have sworn I saw Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., and Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D. throw up gang signs when they passed each other in the Ohio Clock Corridor outside the Senate chamber the other day.
Who would have thought that an august legislative institution once inhabited by statesmen like Daniel Webster and Henry Clay could ever have something in common with Capone?
So what are Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, to do? With this gang activity, Senate decorum threatens to devolve into bedlam over this energy bill. So I consulted the Web site operated by McGruff the Crime Dog. He has an entire section on what kids should do to avoid gangs. My pal McGruff offers this sage advice that lawmakers might consider to avoid the dangers of gang life in the Senate:
“If someone asks you to join a gang, say no. Get away. Tell a trusted adult.”
Now who would that be in the Senate? The most venerable and senior member of the body, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va?
Too late, McGruff. Byrd’s gone street. He was one of the kingpins of the “Gang of 14.” In 2005, Republican senators grew frustrated at Democratic efforts to block President Bush’s judicial nominees. They drew up a plan known as the “nuclear option” to end the time-honored tradition of filibusters. But Byrd and his 13 banded together to defeat that idea.
That same year, the “Gang of 12” marauded through the Senate to craft a bipartisan immigration package. That gang featured the odd alliance of the liberal Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and the conservative (and now GOP Whip) Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.
At the time, gang outsider Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., opposed the group and even referred to them as “masters of the universe.”
But in the Senate, order prevailed and the immigration compromise shriveled.
Gangs don’t just ransack the Senate. Gangs have been known to mark their turf by spray painting graffiti in the House, too. That’s how House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, gained his Congressional street cred as a freshman representative in the early 1990s.
Boehner and six other neophyte Republicans formed the “Gang of Seven.” That group ferreted out the House Bank scandal (where dozens of lawmakers overdrew their accounts) and the House Post Office scandal. The latter eventually led to jail time for former House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski. The scandals unearthed by the Gang of Seven set the stage for Republicans to portray Democrats as corrupt and sweep the GOP to victory in the landslide 1994 election.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that gangs permeate legislative life here on Capitol Hill. Gangs are part of our cultural fabric. Hal Roach directed “Our Gang” comedies. The Sharks and Jets duked it out in “West Side Story.” Even comic book characters Jughead Jones and Veronica Lodge belonged to “Archie’s Gang.”
The 1930’s St. Louis Cardinals were known as “The Gashouse Gang.” So lately, some Congressional reporters started calling the energy bill’s Gang of Ten “The Gas Gang.”
On one hand, the Senate seems like a very regal place. Glistening chandeliers line the hallways. On the floor, senators defer to one another to a fault. Seniority reigns supreme. But amid the traditions, the Doric columns and the over-the-top courtesies, Daniel Day-Lewis roams the halls, and the Dead Rabbits are staging a comeback.
Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s the recipients of an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.