While it’s easy to point to the House of Commons as the craziest legislative body in the western world, the US Congress is no slouch. Brawls, filibusters, fights, and bizarre bills are among the more outlandish things you may have heard about Congress, and with more than two hundred years of history, Washington has seen it all. The craziest things that happened in Congress went down for all sorts of reasons, though mostly it boils down to a few people really hating each other.
Civil Rights bills, sex scandals, and corruption have provided plenty of impetus for drastic action in the past, much like a call to action against gun violence inspired members of the Senate to stage a sit in on the floor in June 2016. But if you think that was wild, just wait until you see some of the crazy stuff below.
Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner was passionately anti-slavery. As the tensions that led to the Civil War intensified, so did resistance to Sumner’s position. After giving a volatile speech against Kansas joining the union as a slave state, Sumner called slavery a harlot and accused South Carolina Democrat Andrew Butler of being its pimp. Chuck was from Boston, what’re you gonna do? That’s how they roll.
Later the same day, South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks, in an effort to defend Butler’s honor, beat the crap out of Sumner with his cane, knocking him unconscious. Brooks resigned shortly after, while Sumner served for another 18 y
They say you know you’re doing something right when you make enemies. In politics, that’s especially true. Well, Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton and Mississippi Senator Henry S. Foote hated each other, so at least one of them was doing something right.
When tensions over the Compromise of 1850 (which was all about drawing lines regarding which states were free or had slaves) reached a breaking point, Foote drew his pistol and pointed it at Benton, who screamed “Let him fire! Let the assassin fire!” Foote was wrestled to the floor and disarmed him. Talk about drama.
Shortly after the caning of Charles Sumner, in the lead up to the Civil War, tensions between northern and southern representatives worsened drastically. In this climate, a string of insults traded by Pennsylvania Representative Galusha Grow and Lawrence Branch of North Carolina erupted into a brawl. It was essentially a 19th century wrestling match on the floor. Representative Keitt hit the floor after one punch, Rep. John F. Potter (whose nick name was Bowie Knife) jumped into the brawl “striking right and left with vigor,” and Congressman John Covade (R-PA) threatened to “brain” someone with a spittoon.
The fight eventually ended and tensions eased, that is, until it became the bloodiest war in American history.
Back in the early days of Congress, members had a bit of the British adventurous spirit. One of the most famous incidents of this era occurred in 1798, when Vermont Representative Matthew Lyon spit tobacco juice in Connecticut Representative Roger Griswold’s face. Griswold, pissed, came at Lyon with his cane. Lyon grabbed a pair of fire tongs and the two had a quick duel before they were separated and expelled. What had the men so heated it came to spits and blows? Apparently, a debate concerning the diplomatic approach to France. C’est la vie.
It’s well within a representative’s right to not to show up for a vote. In fact, it’s a tactic many use to support (or not) certain bills without attracting scrutiny. But in 1988, the Democrats weren’t having it. So, Senator Bob Packwood (R-OR), who was a no show, was seized by police early on the morning of February 24, and carried to the Senate, where he was made to answer a quorum call. No one was offended by the incident, however, since Packwood was known as a corrupt politician who eventually resigned in disgrace.
Packwood himself even joked about it at the time, saying “I rather enjoyed it. I instructed four of my staff to get a sedan chair.”
It’s kind of an unspoken truth that lobbyists control a good portion of the government. The legislative branch has been especially susceptible to their whims, but sometimes it’s so blatant you can’t help but be in awe. In the ’90s, it seems John Boehner was literally handing out bribe checks from the tobacco lobby to fellow representatives, right on the floor of the House. When the New York Times investigated, Boehner’s Chief of Staff said the money was a contribution from tobacco PACs. Boehner went on to become Speaker of the House.
Philip Barton Key (the son of the guy who wrote the Star-Spangled Banner) had an affair with the wife of Representative Daniel E. Sickles (D-NY), which ended when Sickles shot Key to death in front of the White House. Sickles escaped jail time by successfully pleading temporary insanity, then fought with the Union Army in the Civil War. When he returned to Congress after the war, he worked to preserve Gettysburg as a national military park, and made sure to pass a joint resolution donating a fence, to sit a few feet away from where he shot Key. It’s still there in 2016.
For those who don’t know, a filibuster occurs when a member of Congress attempts to postpone a vote by continuously speaking. As long as the member in question holds the floor, other members can’t do anything but listen. The catch is, the person speaking can’t stop to do anything, including eat or go to the bathroom, lest they yield the floor.
When Strom Thurmond (D- SC) saw the Civil Rights Act of 1957, he knew he had to filibuster the hell out of it, because he’s a complete jerk (actually more a blatant racist). Good ol’ Strom set the record for the Senate’s longest filibuster, speaking for 24 hours and 18 minutes.
When he had to pee, Thurmond kept one foot on the Senate floor and pissed into a bucket held by an intern in the Senate cloakroom. Despite Strom’s harebrained effort, the bill still passed. Thurmond was re-elected again and again until 2003.
James Traficant (D-OH) was a bit of a character. Not only did he have the most ridiculous hairpiece in modern politics, he was corrupt as hell. In fact, he was convicted in federal court of bribery and taking kickbacks, which frowned upon. The House voted to expel Traficant 420-1. Hey, at least he had one fan. It was Gary Condit of California. What? Yeah, no idea.
And what’s so crazy about this, you may ask? The fact that it never happens. In fact, Trafiant was only the fifth member of the House to be ousted in its history. Getting fired from Congress is like winning the lottery: everyone does stuff to increase the odds of it happening, but it never actually matters. Here, he clearly did enough that being a rich and white politician couldn’t protect him, which is pretty impressive.
In the wake of the expulsion vote, Traficant proclaimed his innocence, but it did little to dissuade the motion.
It’s no secret have been people in the United States government who are racist, but it used to be really bad. Take Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi, for instance. He once asked for $250 million to deport all the African Americans in the United States to Liberia. His inspiration? Germany’s new Nazi regime. “Germans appreciate the importance of race values. They understand that racial improvement is the greatest asset that any country can have.”
Just a few years later, he filibustered an anti-lynching bill.