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Sniffing out attention in Washington

When Rep. John E. Peterson came under attack for steering taxpayer funds to a weather museum in Punxsutawney, Pa., the town famous for its Groundhog Day observance, it wasn’t enough for the Pennsylvania Republican to go before the microphone to defend the spending.

He sent for Phil.

The weather-predicting groundhog joined Peterson on Capitol Hill in 2004 as the lawmaker defended the $100,000 earmark as a way to promote tourism in an economically depressed area. It was the biggest crowd the congressman had ever drawn for a news conference.

“You’d think the president was there,” said Jordan Clark, Peterson’s chief of staff.

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When it comes to making your point heard, Washington loves its props.

To prove that ethanol was safe for gas tanks, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) once took a swig of the stuff. When Rep. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena) couldn’t get a meeting with the Interior secretary to discuss the administration’s water policies and a massive fish kill in the Klamath River, he dumped 500 pounds of dead fish outside the department’s offices.

And when the California Poultry Foundation wanted to protest a policy that allowed frozen chicken to be sold as fresh, it invited lawmakers to bowl frozen chickens. “There’s so many issues in Washington. And chicken didn’t seem to be a top priority,” said the president of the foundation, Bill Mattos. “But it certainly was once we got all these people interested in the chicken bowling.”

“It’s not enough to just have a good speech,” said former Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who once brought bloodhounds into the Capitol in search of a yet-to-be produced Democratic budget. Susan Irby, a former Lott staffer, added, “You have to find a way to make your event stand out.”

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The use of props isn’t new.

Rep. Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) gained notoriety in 1991 when he wore a paper bag over his head to show his contempt for Congress during the House banking scandal. That same year, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine) used a sledgehammer to drive home a point -- smashing a Toshiba radio to protest the company’s sale of technology products to the Soviet Union. And Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.) brought a machete to his first meeting as House Appropriations Committee chairman in 1995 to show his determination to cut spending.

But such stunts seem to be on the rise in the age of 24-hour cable news and YouTube.

When Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez) called a news conference to promote his Protect America’s Wildlife Act, which would outlaw the hunting of gray wolves from airplanes or helicopters, he brought along Atka. A warning to those attending the event read: “No food is allowed on the terrace when the wolf is present.”

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“A picture is worth a thousand words,” said Don Wolfensberger, a former congressional staffer who is director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Congress Project. “Unfortunately, with the congressional gimmick press conferences, you get the visual and the thousand words.”

And the creativity knows no party lines or political leaning.

In 2000, when Republicans were in charge on Capitol Hill, they sent a couple dressed as a bride and groom (with tin cans strung to the rear of their car) up Pennsylvania Avenue to deliver a bill to eliminate the federal tax code’s “marriage penalty.” President Clinton vetoed it.

Last December, the Democratic majority sent an energy bill to President Bush in a fuel-efficient Toyota Prius.

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To criticize Bush’s tax cuts as skewed toward the wealthy, congressional Democrats sent for a Lexus and a muffler. The former, they said, was an example of what wealthy taxpayers could buy with their share of the 2001 tax cut. The latter was intended to show what ordinary taxpayers could buy.

To counter the American Meat Institute’s annual hot dog lunch on Capitol Hill, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has featured women wearing lettuce-leaf bikinis giving out veggie dogs. “As one might expect, this attracted some attention,” PETA’s Jeff Mackey wrote this summer on the organization’s blog, noting that the line stretched around the block.

During a debate on energy policy, the National Corn Growers Assn. urged its members to send gas receipts to senators.

Supporters of a barrier along the border sent bricks to lawmakers.

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There is, of course, always a possibility that the use of props will backfire.

“Political theater still has a role in highlighting a cause or issue, but . . . it’s important not to get buried in the part,” said Pete Sepp of the National Taxpayers Union. “Given the wealth of online video, for example, a failed publicity stunt can be seen by millions instead of just a roomful of people.”

As a reminder of that lesson, former House GOP leadership aide Kevin Madden said, he kept in his office a picture of Republicans holding toy windmills in an attempt to ridicule Democrats’ energy policies. It looked silly, Madden said, and “the message it sent was one that was not serious at all” about energy policy.

There are some limits to the theatrics -- mostly out of respect for the congressional rules of decorum and security restrictions in the post-Sept. 11 era. “We could be even more creative if there weren’t,” said Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks). “And then maybe C-SPAN would no longer be America’s least-watched cable television network.”

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While speaking on the House floor, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) -- an advocate of building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border to stop illegal immigration -- constructed a small model of a wall with cardboard, wood and wiring across the top. He said he decided to build it after a colleague advised that he would be “more believable if you have visuals.” King’s handiwork has been featured on YouTube.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) brought a bottle of green sludge to the Senate floor to call attention to need for a water cleanup project in his state. A Nelson spokesman said that the bottle may have made the point much more powerfully than a full day of talking.

Sometimes, however, the visual aids get nixed.

John Feehery, spokesman for then-House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), said he once suggested bringing a horse to the Capitol to demonstrate that Republicans were workhorses, not show horses.

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The Speaker’s response? Nay.

Opposing props can on occasion find themselves on a collision course, as has happened with environmentalists who showed up at congressional hearings in polar-bear and pink-salmon suits.

“In the wild, they’re natural predatory enemies,” observed Bill Wicker, a spokesman for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “The polar bear, I guess, he eats a lot of salmon. But they’re bosom buddies on Capitol Hill. They sit with each other at hearings and have been seen hanging out together in the Senate coffee shop.”

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richard.simon@latimes.com


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