Chicken Run

Scared Congress Seeks Shelter in Nuclear Henhouse

 WASHINGTON, D.C.—Anyone looking to cure what's wrong with Congress these days might just as well skip Cipro and start handing out anti-anxiety pills. Lawmakers spent last week running around like chickens, simultaneously dosing staffers to ward off anthrax, fleeing Washington, and calling for the U.S. to nuke Afghanistan, Iraq, and anyone else in the way.

"If we're a primary target, us leaving town limits the collateral damage to staff," said Idaho Republican senator Larry E. Craig, in the wake of dozens of anthrax exposures on the Hill.

Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott wanted to close Congress for the rest of the year. "Once we get through the things that need to be done as a result of September 11 and get our appropriations bills through then we [should] recess."

The sight of Congress fleeing the Capitol at the very moment ground troops were landing in Afghanistan proved embarrassing. "People are really pissed—going out of town looking like a bunch of cowards and chumps," said one representative, a Democrat who would talk to the Voice only on condition of anonymity.

The Senate and House leadership reportedly met and agreed to shut down at the same time. Then, says one member of Congress, the Senate double-crossed the House by announcing it would stay open a day longer—thereby allowing the Democratic Senate to appear a little less cowardly than the right-wing Republicans who run the House.

Nobody blamed House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who looked like your average frightened guy. "He's a wrestling coach," said a Capitol Hill regular. "He cares about people. And he sees a lot of young people." Apparently, Hastert was worried anthrax might waft through the tunnel that connects the Capitol to House and Senate office buildings, endangering workers. But what shook the Democrats was the sudden emergence of their own leader, Dick Gephardt, with a wild look in his eyes and talking, as one member put it, in "apocalyptical" tones. "He was scared to death," said an observer.

As were many in Washington, where the only thing you can count on these days is the unceasing roar of jet fighters flying high above the city, spiked every so often by the screaming sirens of official motorcades complete with Secret Service details peering through open windows. The always bumbling and now jacked-up D.C. police have turned office buildings into forts, with concrete barriers and ominous security posts. Up Massachusetts Avenue, facing the vice president's grounds, SUVs block the gate. Down the street, plainclothes officers sit in unmarked cars watching the fences. Brown military choppers, beating the air, come and go all day.

Late news that anthrax had infected two postal workers outside the Capitol area was taken as another ominous sign that the people who run the city are hiding information or, more likely, are totally clueless. By Monday, officials were investigating the suspicious deaths of two other postal employees from the same facility, and ordering anyone who had spent time there in the past 11 days to come in immediately for testing. What took them so long?

Meanwhile, the District's hazmat squads were overwhelmed with freak calls, like someone spotting a bit of powder or some spilled jam. One woman plotted an evacuation route by back roads to West Virginia. Signs in hardware stores said: "Latex Gloves—Small to Large."

Some bitterly suggested the Georgetown social set was hoarding Cipro. In its handling of the anthrax scare, congressional leadership may have been—to put it politely—confused and misinformed. Thousands of Capitol Hill staffers, reporters, and lobbyists lined up for testing Tuesday. By noon, some 2000 had been given six tablets of Cipro and told to take two each day before returning for further testing. In doing so, legislators were handing out a medicine known for fierce side effects, from inflamed bowels to paranoia, convulsions, and potentially fatal interactions with asthma treatments. But the same 1999 army study that recommended Cipro for anthrax also backed doxycycline, a drug with far fewer complications.

Lawmakers have been just as wild in their political response. In remarks he now says were misconstrued, Arizona senator Jon Kyl, a Republican, said at a town meeting in Tucson that the U.S. ought to retaliate with nuclear weapons if terrorists attacked with chemicals or germs. "I can't think of any other appropriate response in the case of a massive attack with biological weapons," he said. "We have to let terrorist states know that nothing is off the table."

Hightailing it had the added advantage of avoiding embarrassing controversy over the sticking points in America's response to terrorism.

For starters, members of Congress can't agree on whether private business should continue to run airport security. The left argues that for-profit companies will never invest the wages needed to ensure safety, while the right resists the creation of thousands more government—and thus unionized—jobs. During a news conference Tuesday at Washington's Reagan National Airport, Democrat Gephardt said he could "no longer stand by while a handful in the House of Representatives prevent dramatic reform of aviation security."

"That is politics," countered House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas, a staunch GOP opponent of federalization. "What the Democrats want is 30,000 new dues-paying union members."

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