Roman’s Rule, Guam’s Peril and Rep. Johnson: No Minimum Standards of Competence For Congress

Ever since I saw the video of Congressman Hank Johnson (D-GA) declaring his anxiety over the possibility that the island of Guam will “tip over” and “capsize,” I’ve been wrestling with the question: Shouldn’t there be some minimum level of intelligence and competence for members of Congress? I’m not considering anything lofty here, but a man whose vote helped pass a health care bill of unprecedented complexity that will affect every American just revealed that he thinks islands are like icebergs or floating trash can covers. This suggests that he may be subject to many other misconceptions, since he has apparently never read a newspaper, much less watched a National Geographic special. Not to be unkind about it, but such a statement, uttered on television for all the world to see, is prima facie evidence that he is an ignorant dim-wit. Whatever a safe and responsible cut-off point would be for admission to Congress, can we agree that fearing the capsizing of Guam would put one well below it? I don’t know about you, but I’m a little frightened.

Yet try as I might, I cannot see any fair way to deny a man like Johnson a place in Congress just based on the fact that he’s a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic. I am presuming he is doing the best he can. One thing is sure about those who are willing to proclaim their ignorance on the national stage: they have no idea that their brain isn’t firing on all pistons. It isn’t his fault. I have no problem declaring the voters who elected such a representative, and the party that nominated him, unforgivably irresponsible, but that’s the weak side of our democracy. If we believe that all citizens should have the opportunity to vote, they should also have the freedom to vote for the candidate they want—even if he thinks Guam is about to tip over.

This has caused me to reconsider what has long been marked as another epically idiotic statement by a politician, the late Senator Roman Hruska’s defense of Richard Nixon’s awful (and unsuccessful) Supreme Court nomination of Judge Harold Carswell by saying that mediocre Americans deserved to represented on the Supreme Court too. Hruska was wrong to apply the principle to the Supreme Court, but in Congress, maybe he’s right. Indeed, he was probably an example. Those we elect are obligated to do the best they can, whatever it is, honestly and diligently. They are not obligated to be smart, logical or objectively well-informed.

After all, Rep. Johnson is hardly the most objectionable member of Congress. Everything I’ve read indicates that he is honest and hard-working; the fact that he may be honest puts him head and shoulders above most of his colleagues on both sides of the aisle. Amazingly enough, he is a clear improvement over his predecessor in his District, the race-baiting, conspiracy theory-spouting Cynthia McKinney, who also once assaulted a Capitol police officer. I would usually fault him for allowing his staff to make obviously untrue statements to deflect the embarrassment of his Guam remarks, saying that he was speaking “metaphorically” about a “tipping point,” but really, what are they supposed to do? Say, “Yeah, he thinks islands are like little rafts. He also believes that babies come from storks and that Paul Bunyan was a real person. Weird, huh?” I’m ready to cut Hank a break.

After the episode, it was revealed that Rep. Johnson suffers from Hepatitis C, which might leave him confused. If that is the reason that he made the Guam comment, then he could be engaging in unethical conduct by remaining in Congress. He would have an obligation to step down if a malady made him unable to do his job competently, assuming he was capable otherwise. But no: the Congressman’s office announced that he was feeling fine….just worried about Guam.

So Ethics Alarms gives Rep. Johnson its Seal of Ethics Approval. Not his constituents, not his Party: they are irresponsible in the extreme to send someone like this to Washington make the laws of the land. (Don’t get me started on how Hank Johnson managed to become a judge...) The Congressman, however, is doing his best.

He would make Roman Hruska proud.

4 thoughts on “Roman’s Rule, Guam’s Peril and Rep. Johnson: No Minimum Standards of Competence For Congress

  1. You know, I fancy myself able to see nuance here, and I’m not entirely sure he wasn’t being a “metaphorical” smartass. That is, he was talking about putting so many people in one spot in a tiny island and discussing ecological ramifications. I haven’t seen hi-res video, but by mannerisms alone it looks more like he was being intentionally confrontational and sarcastic.
    This would give him the pass on being crazy, but would make him just another jerk (and horrible at punchlines).

    • You may be right. I have a very well informed source who swears this is the case. I suppose it should be more likely that he is a terrible speaker and a clueless public speaker than that he would really believe an island could “capsize,” and was injured by the fact that the admiral gave such a deadpan response. And I may be biased because he comes from a district that twice elected McKinney, who is deranged. Fortunately, it doesn’t really affect the thesis of the article. If you were misunderstood, Congressman, I apologize.

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