Chris Lee and the Sea of 541

It's been a little more than two weeks since former Rep. Chris Lee (R-NY) abruptly resigned from office. And Capitol Hill is still buzzing about his hair-trigger resignation.

The New York Republican stepped down just two-and-a-half hours after the gossip website Gawker posted a half-nude picture of Lee and published emails the married Congressman sent to a woman he contacted on Craig's List.

The standard question is "What in the world was he thinking?"

There's a follow-up: "What in the world was he thinking, considering that he's a Congressman?"

And a third.

"Didn't he think anyone would recognize him?"

Perhaps that's the most prescient probe surrounding Lee. How WOULDN'T someone catch on that it was him sending the photo? After all, he's a famous Congressman?

Not really.

There are 541 celebrities on Capitol Hill. 100 in the Senate. 435 in the House, plus the six non-voting delegates to Congress. Quick, someone tell me who's the delegate from American Samoa and what he looks like....

For the record, it's Del. Eni Faleomavaega (D-AS).

See, it's EASY to blend in. Especially in the House of Representatives.

Chris Lee is not House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH). Or Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) or Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY). He's not Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) or Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN).

Muammar Qaddafi has more ways to spell his last name than there are House members whom the average American can name.

It wouldn't take long to exhaust the entire roster of household name lawmakers beyond Boehner, Pelosi, Rangel, Bachmann and Pence. In fact, there would then be about 400 other representatives I hadn't mentioned.

I think the Washington Nationals have at least that many pitchers in camp this spring.

See, lawmakers are generally known back in their districts. But even then, name recognition can be tenuous.

People may have known Lee in his western New York district. But on Capitol Hill, Lee was a fairly-obscure, sophomore Congressman.

With potential.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle viewed Lee as a possible rising star. He was a workhorse with the econometric skills to grapple with complex tax policy and business issues. That scored Lee a plum assignment on the coveted House Ways and Means Committee. Articulate and handsome, Lee was someone on the horizon who true insiders knew was worth watching.

They just weren't watching for him on Craig's List.

But that's the point. Only the true insiders knew much about Lee. And who are the insiders? Smart, ears-to-the-ground journalists. Tuned-in lobbyists. Key Congressional aides. And that was about it.

And you'd be flabbergasted how few journalists, lobbyists, aides and even lawmakers themselves know their colleagues, especially if they're relatively new or are backbenchers.

The names of Reps. Mark Foley (R-FL), Vito Fossella (R-NY) and Mark Souder (R-IN) were hardly well-known until each of them either resigned or retried amid scandals.

And when your name is "Chris Lee," it's even easier to blend in to the sea of 541.

But that anonymity is an illusion. This is Washington. That means you're ALWAYS on stage. And someone always knows who you are. Even if you don't realize they see you.

Such was the case about 15 years ago when I was home near Cincinnati. My family stopped at a restaurant in the northern suburbs. And in walked the local, freshman Congressman with his wife and kids for a meal.

My parents didn't recognize him. The server didn't recognize him. None of the other patrons recognized him. But as a producer at C-SPAN at the time, I recognized him. And before I settled the bill, I swung by to say hello to Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH).

Chabot was surprised to see someone from Washington in southwest Ohio.

A few years later, I found myself riding one of the "mobile lounges" en route to the international flight at Dulles Airport. The gigantic vehicle lurched forward and sent a short man with glasses flying towards me. I grabbed the fellow before he toppled to the deck.

I had caught the late-Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK).

Everyone else in the mobile lounge barely looked up from their copy of Washington Flyer.

Airplanes and airports are a great place to spot lawmakers if you know who to look for. I've been on a flight to Seattle with Rep. Norm Dicks (D-WA). Shared a flight back to Washington from the west with Sen. John Ensign (R-NV). A few years ago, I boarded a plane bound for Minneapolis-St. Paul with practically the entire Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota Congressional delegations on board.

Then-Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID) was not a ticketed passenger on that jaunt to Minneapolis-St. Paul.

On a Sunday afternoon a few years ago, I spied then-Rep. Bud Cramer (D-AL) browsing into shop windows as he sauntered across the cobblestones of Old Town Alexandria, VA. None of the other passersby knew Cramer was a Congressman. Seeing Cramer in the Washington suburbs on a Sunday surprised me because I knew he taught Sunday school. Cramer later told me he stayed in Washington that weekend to finish some work and went to historic Old Town just to walk around.

I used to go to a gym in Alexandria where I'd bump into Rep. John Campbell (R-CA) in the early hours before work. We'd talk policy and politics for a few minutes back by the free weights. But no one else bothered to remove their ear buds to chat up Campbell as they headed to the cardio theatre.

On a steamy August Saturday nearly two years ago, a Washington, DC park just blocks from the Capitol bustled with Congressional aides out walking their dogs or sipping iced mochas.

No one noticed when the Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee strolled through the park, clad in a t-shirt and puffing on a cigar. Of course I recognized Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV) and asked why he was in Washington in the middle of the August recess. Turns out a friend of Rahall's had passed away and the West Virginia Democrat was in town for the funeral.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) is one of the most sought-after interviews in Washington these days. When the Democrats ran the House, Van Hollen was a key confidante of Nancy Pelosi and chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

But in the fall of 2007, no one noticed that Van Hollen was treating his father to a performance by the "The Capitol Steps" comedy troupe. That surprised me because some of those in attendance were undoubtedly Van Hollen's constituents. Van Hollen's district runs just north of Washington, DC and hugs the city's boundary.

Sporting events are also good places to spy lawmakers.

I've seen Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) at Citi Field, cheering on the New York Mets. I've chatted up Hall of Famer and former Sen. Jim Bunning (R-KY) at the Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati. When the Washington Nationals played at RFK Stadium a few seasons ago, Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA) climbed to the right field upper deck with several aides and an exchange student. McDermott spent several innings explaining baseball to the exchange student.

But not a fan, usher, or beer vendor recognized any of these lawmakers taking in the National Pastime.

Perhaps this is why some lawmakers stricken with ethics scandals think they can "get away with it" or use bad judgment. They go places and no one recognizes them. They're not in their arena on Capitol Hill. They're not giving a speech on the House floor or browbeating a witness at a subcommittee hearing. So they become part of the crowd.

But Congress is too high-profile for that. It's like Lord of the Rings where the Eye of Sauron perpetually sweeps the landscape. Someone will see someone. And know who that someone is. And if they see them do something bad, they'll dial the Reliable Source at the Washington Post.

It's impossible to be incognito in Congress. The sea of 541is just too small. It's a puddle, really. And the real Washington insiders know how to navigate the waters.