Quotable Congress Gets Ideas From Single Source

The Washington Post

Everyone in Washington knows about ghost writers, political managers, erudite wives and lobbyists who put words in the mouths of members of Congress.

Few know of the solons’ secret source of wise words--the Congressional Research Service. CRS is the Library of Congress arm--or rather eye--that looks things up for Congress, to put it simply.

But now you too can orate like a senator or congressman, because the useful folk in CRS have put out a collection of 2,100 memorable remarks: “Respectfully Quoted, a Dictionary of Quotations Requested From the Congressional Research Service.”

The book, edited by Suzy Platt, is the result of 50 years of such requests.


Representatives call CRS for many kinds of help. Sometimes the member hopes a quotation used against him by another can be “refuted, labeled spurious, and buried once and for all,” Charles Goodrum, former CRS assistant director, now a mystery novelist, writes in the introduction.

He divides requests into three types: “the hard ones, the repetitive ones and the impossible ones.” The most oft-supplied quote comes from a 1977 speech by the late Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey (1911-1978) on the occasion of the Health, Education and Welfare building’s being named for him: “It was once said that the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those in the shadows of life--the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

CRS is often in the position of telling people that Lincoln, or Marie Antoinette, among others, was misquoted. For example, “Ten Points” (“You cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift . . . ") is not attributable to Lincoln. Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931), writing in Arabic after World War I, is credited by CRS with: “Are you a politician asking what your country can do for you or a zealous one asking what you can do for your country? If you are the first, then you are a parasite; if the second, then you are an oasis in the desert.”

Platt notes, not surprisingly, that the tome is perhaps richest of all in quotations on the subjects of government, legislature, Constitution and congressmen.


Rep. Joseph G. Cannon (1836-1926), speaker of the House from 1903 to 1911, is credited with, “In legislation we all do a lot of ‘swapping tobacco across the lines.’ ”

Another speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn (1882-1961), who held that honor off and on through the 1940s and 1950s, said, “Too many critics mistake the deliberations of the Congress for its decisions.”

Comedian Will Rogers (1879-1935), whose favorite subject was Congress, is quoted as saying " . . . every time they make a joke it’s a law. And every time they make a law it’s a joke.”

Mark Twain (1835-1910) was also fond of the subject: “I think we can say, and say with pride, that we have some legislatures that bring higher prices than any in the world.” And: “It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.”

Some members have been equally hard on themselves, such as Sen. John Sharp Williams (1854-1932), who said he’d “rather be a hound dog and bay at the moon from my Mississippi plantation than remain in the United States Senate.”

Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) was kinder: “The Senate is just what the mode of its election and the conditions of public life in this country make it.”

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) has the most citations in the book--93. Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) is next with 60. Winston Churchill (35), the Bible (33), Adlai Stevenson (32), and Franklin D. Roosevelt (30) are the runners-up. Ronald Reagan only has three; President Bush isn’t cited at all.

The 520-page, cloth-bound book lists quotes by subject and has subject- and author-indexes. It’s available from the U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402 ($29).