The United States just celebrated Independence Day to mark the anniversary of their declaration of independence from Great Britten in 1776. While that is the day that is marked as the beginning of the new country, things were more formalized over the following 13 years through the Revolutionary War and many meetings and conferences to actually set up the structure of the country and the government. Congress was set up to write laws that would apply to the nation as a whole. To say that things have changed in the approximately 230 years since Congress was formed would be the biggest understatement of the century. Adding to the mystery is that schools, textbooks, and the media don’t really tell the full story of what takes place. Let’s take a look at 5 things that most people don’t know about life as a Congressman.
5. Congresspeople Have A Private Train
– Capitol Hill sits atop a sprawling network of underground tunnels. Despite the obvious one-liners, we’ll go with the assumption that these are used to keep the legislators protected from lunatics that might want to attack them (and are plenty of those around).
There is something interesting hidden down there, though: a private subway used by members of Congress to commute between the Hill’s various legislative chambers and the also-various offices and administrative buildings. The one thing that will likely surprise people is that it is NOT a luxury train with marble tables, caviar snacks and high-end beer taps. It’s literally just a tiny train that moves from place to place.
The subway isn’t open to the public, but it is open to the press, which makes for some interesting trips. Everyone in the press is in the tank for one party or the other, so imagine carpooling with someone who hates your guts. They also have to fend off flocks of lobbyists vying for their time and support. This makes you think twice about being mad at anyone who wanted to spend their entire term holed up in their office.
4. They Obsess over their Wikipedia Entries
“You’re kidding, right? Nobody is obsessed over their Wikipedia entry!” You would be wrong in thinking that. A Twitter account called @CongressEdits has documented thousands of staffers editing Wikipedia articles on topics as crazy and downright stupid as light sabers, lizard people, Carly Rae Jepsen, Lord Of The Rings, and whether Donald Rumsfeld is an “alien wizard” — edits that were caught/flagged because they came from IP addresses assigned to the Capitol. (If you weren’t aware, you are not permitted to edit your own Wikipedia page.)
Hang on, it gets worse. In 2014, an anonymous user was caught editing all mentions of the word “torture” from the Wikipedia article on the report on the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation” during the War on Terror that had just been published. That is like trying to edit an article about baseball to remove all mentions of bats. Earlier that year, another member of Congress edited the site’s article about transgender actress Laverne Cox to describe her as “a real man pretending to be a woman.” Award-winning stuff, right? Yes, we know, more like a YouTube troll.
The most recent development is that @CongressEdits was suspended by Twitter in October 2018 for accidentally doxxing a bunch of senators. Whoever is dying to add information about how the movie “Killer Clowns From Outer Space” needs to be an integral part of upcoming debates can now do so.
3. The System For Dealing With Constituents Is An Embarrassing Mess
Calling your representative is your main chance to influence how they’ll act on subjects like healthcare reform, net neutrality, or whatever the fancy term for “locking children in cages” is. And if you’ve ever bothered to actually do that, you know that it’s common for your call to go to voicemail. The phone often goes unanswered, and the voicemail is full a lot of the time. There’s no system for making sure voicemails are checked. Most congressional offices leave that for low-level interns to do, between picking up sandwich orders and dodging flying memos. The offices only tend to have between four and seven lines, which, as Wired points out, means they could (theoretically) handle a maximum of 4,200 calls per day. That’s a woefully inadequate number, given the size of the population that each legislator represents, as well as the ever-increasing number of people who actually care about politics in these tumultuous times. For instance, after the immigration ban was announced in January 2017, the Capitol received over 1.5 million calls per day from worried/angry/saddened/delighted constituents.
“OK, I’ll send my rep an email,” you say. That’s about as effective as writing a handwritten letter and never mailing it. Emails are easy to lose track of, and it’s also easy for them to be erased without being read. Also, no one is paying attention to the tweet threads or clap-backs or sassy emoji-fests you’re firing at your representative on social media, even though this is how millions of people are engaging with politics each day. Of course, if the poor interns had to monitor social media thoroughly, they would probably end up in a room with striped sunlight, padded walls and no corners, wearing a jacket with no sleeves.
2. Some Members Sleep In Offices
Not too long ago, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez triggered anger amongst right-wing people like Ben Shapiro, Candace Owens, and Fox News by saying something that demonstrated how elitist and out of touch with common Americans most members of Congress really are: It’s really hard to maintain two homes.
It’s actually about having trouble affording a SECOND apartment. If you live in the Bronx and work in DC, you need a spot in both. Expecting her to easily drop serious cash in another high-rent area is ludicrous and only perpetuates the idea that the wealthy can be elected.
But this is not new. The exorbitant price of real estate in Washington, D.C. is such a problem for politicians that it’s estimated that 20% of the lawmakers in the House of Representatives are squatting in their offices like every parent in every ’90s kids movie.
Since congressional offices don’t come with beds, they have to stash cots and futons in their closets, or suck it up and lay on the couch. As for washroom facilities, there’s a gym which lawmakers can use to freshen up (which has historical precedent, it turns out). Among those in this campground was former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. It’s easier to deal with uncomfortable cots and hard sofas when you have no spine, though, which is something that could be said of almost every member of Congress. Some suggest that we could do worse than build Congress a dorm. We don’t know if we could stand endless news reports about Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell squaring off over who keeps drinking the other one’s milk, but it might be fun for a little while
1. They Get Unlimited Porn And Candy
– In 1983, Larry Flynt, the founder of Hustler magazine (the hairier, smuttier version of Playboy) started sending copies of his magazine to every member of Congress.
Magazines were the most popular form for those that wished to indulge in adult entertainment in those days (remember, this was before the internet). Just as today, some people indulge, some do not. In 1984, 264 (out of 535) congressional offices, along with the USPS, petitioned the District of Columbia to halt the deliveries. The case went to the U.S. District Court, and Congress lost, on the grounds that banning the deliveries would’ve violated Flynt’s right to free speech. Some years later, the Supreme Court would also rule that pornography is protected by that First Amendment clause. The deliveries still continue to this day.
Not only can you get smut for free as a member of Congress, you can also get free candy. In a tradition that started in 1965, the “Candy Desk” is a desk in the Senate that’s always kept well-stocked with sweets. Since the desk is situated on the Republican side, past candy suppliers have included John McCain and Rick Santorum. Given the current climate of “if you disagree with me, you are evil and must be silenced” that passes for political discourse, it’s a wonder that the Democrats haven’t launched a “Republicans want to kill people through a candy overdose” campaign. (Disclaimer: if the desk were on the Democrat side, we would suspect the Republicans of planning the same campaign.)
There are tons of other things going on in D.C. that people don’t know about it. But hey, these people have important things to do – it’s hard work getting rich off the backs of Americans while trying so hard to pretend they actually care about the people that sent them there.