Rep. Ted Poe is Washington's talker of the town

WASHINGTON — The House chamber was almost empty; lawmakers had cast their last vote of the week and rushed out the swinging doors to catch flights home.

Not Ted Poe. The Texas Republican, in his cowboy boots, stayed behind to deliver a speech — the kind that has earned him a special distinction: Congress' top talker.

This time, he called for photo identification for voting, declaring, "A person needs an ID to open a bank account ... check into a hotel ... board a plane."

While it may not be surprising that a politician likes to talk, Poe is a record-holder for verbosity. He spoke on the House floor 235 days in the 2009-2010 congressional session, according to C-SPAN, which tracks lawmakers' speaking days. He's up to 196 days in the current session, with a few weeks left.

The 64-year-old former judge is an oratory throwback in the age of text messages and Twitter. Since last year, after lawmakers were allowed for the first time to use electronic devices on the House floor, they have used their fingers, not their voices, to deliver public messages.

Poe can't limit himself to 140 characters. He believes it is part of his job to talk as much as he can about what's on his constituents' minds, even if he is unlikely to sway lawmakers who hew to their party line.

"I try to speak every day," said the six-generation Texan, who lives in the Houston area and relishes his colorful outbursts of Texas conservatism. "If I can, I speak more than once."

Among his unofficial hall of fame quotes from the current session:

On NASA's decision to award a retired space shuttle to New York over Houston:

Like putting the Statue of Liberty in Omaha.

On excessive government regulations:

Good thing the federal regulators weren't around when the Ten Commandments were written — no telling what additional regulations they would have added to those simple 10 phrases.

On the Environmental Protection Agency:

They sit around a big oak table, drinking their lattes; they have out their iPads and their computers, and they decide: Who shall we regulate today?

Poe's commitment — actually, eagerness — to speak on the House floor is becoming passe, Congress watchers say.

"The idea of speaking on the floor as a way of making a point ... just doesn't happen much anymore," said Norman Ornstein, a political science scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. "If you want to make a point about something, you're going to find a celebrity and hold a press conference."

Some see Poe's verbosity as his way of drawing attention to himself — like he did as a county judge from 1981 to 2003.

Back then, he instituted "shame punishment," dubbed Poe-etic justice. He ordered convicted murderers to hang victims' photos on their prison cell walls and shoplifters to wear sandwich boards reading "I stole from this store" in front of the crime scenes.

"He clearly likes visibility," said Richard Murray, a University of Houston political science professor. "In a field not known for small egos, he still stands out."

It's hard to tell whether Poe's speeches have any impact because the chamber often is mostly empty when he talks. During a 2010 speech to mark Domestic Violence Awareness Month, his grandson, whom he brought to the House chamber, nodded off.

"That was not my best speech," Poe laughed.

But Poe's staffers say he hears from people from all over the country. Some supporters admire him for trying to engage in public debate the old-fashioned way. Back home, his constituents don't seem to be aware that he is the king of the congressional floor speech.

"Is that right?" said Becky Ames, mayor of Beaumont, Texas. "But I'm not surprised. He's a man of his convictions."

She has watched a few of his speeches, including one of his more famous rants on light bulb regulation in which he railed against the federal phase-out of old-fashioned incandescent light bulbs.

Appearing with an energy-efficient light bulb in hand, Poe warned, "I'll be very careful not to drop it on the House floor, because if I do, we'll have to evacuate," a mocking allusion to mercury in the more-efficient bulbs.

Poe is undeterred that he may often be speaking into thin air, and he adheres to a step-by-step routine. He lines up at the House chamber about half an hour early to guarantee him one of the few slots offered to speak on any subject.

"I try to be first," he said.

He knows he can belt out a speech in the one-minute limit if he keeps to 175 words. He often ends with his trademark, "And that's just the way it is."

Elected to the House in 2004, Poe considers his biggest congressional achievement the creation of the Congressional Victims' Rights Caucus. He also pushed for sending 10,000 National Guard troops to the border with Mexico and ending U.S. aid to Pakistan except for funding to secure its nuclear weapons, and he sponsored legislation that would allow TV coverage of Supreme Court proceedings.

And to be sure, Poe isn't the only one who likes to talk a lot. Although he insists there is not a competition with fellow Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat, she holds the No. 2 spot, with 190 speaking days this session — six fewer than Poe.

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