By TIMOTHY EGAN
Not long ago, the congressman from northeast Texas, Louie Gohmert, was talking about how the trans-Alaska oil pipeline improved the sex lives of certain wild animals — in his mind, the big tube was an industrial-strength aphrodisiac. “When the caribou want to go on a date,” he told a House hearing, “they invite each other to head over to the pipeline.”
Gohmert, consistently on the short list for the most off-plumb member of Congress, has said so many crazy things that this assertion passed with little comment. Last year, he blamed a breakdown of Judeo-Christian values for the gun slaughter at a cinema in Colorado. Last week, he claimed the Muslim Brotherhood had deep influence in the Obama administration, and that the attorney general — the nation’s highest law enforcer — sympathized with terrorists.
You may wonder how he gets away with this. You may also wonder how Gohmert can run virtually unopposed in recent elections. The answer explains why we have an insular, aggressively ignorant House of Representatives that is not at all representative of the public will, let alone the makeup of the country.
Much has been said about how the great gerrymander of the people’s House — part of a brilliant, $30 million Republican action plan at the state level — has now produced a clot of retrograde politicians who are comically out of step with a majority of Americans. It’s not just that they oppose things like immigration reform and simple gun background checks for violent felons, while huge majorities support them.
Alex Wong/Getty Images Louie Gohmert at a Tea Party rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012.
Or that, in the aggregate, Democrats got 1.4 million more votes for all House positions in 2012 but Republicans still won control with a cushion of 33 seats.
Or that they won despite having the lowest approval rating in modern polling, around 10 percent in some surveys. Richard Nixon during Watergate and B.P.’s initial handling of a catastrophic oil spill had higher approval ratings.
But just look at how different this Republican House is from the country they are supposed to represent. It’s almost like a parallel government, sitting in for some fantasy nation created in talk-radio land.
As a whole, Congress has never been more diverse, except the House majority. There are 41 black members of the House, but all of them are Democrats. There are 10 Asian-Americans, but all of them are Democrats. There are 34 Latinos, a record — and all but 7 are Democrats. There are 7 openly gay or lesbian members, all of them Democrats.
Only 63 percent of the United States population is white. But in the House Republican majority, it’s 96 percent white. Women are 51 percent of the nation, but among the ruling members of the House, they make up just 8 percent. (It’s 30 percent on the Democratic side.)
It’s a stretch, by any means, to call the current House an example of representative democracy. Now let’s look at how the members govern:
To date, seven bills have been enacted. Let’s see, there was the Responsible Helium Administration and Stewardship act — “ensuring the stability of the helium market.” The Violence Against Women Act was renewed, but only after a majority of Republicans voted against it, a rare instance of letting the full House decide on something that the public favors. Just recently, they rushed through a change to help frequent air travelers — i.e., themselves — by fixing a small part of the blunt budget cuts that are the result of their inability to compromise. Meal assistance to the elderly, Head Start for kids and other programs will continue to fall under the knife of sequestration.
On the economy, the Republican majority has been consciously trying to derail a fragile recovery. Their first big salvo was the debt ceiling debacle, which resulted in the lowering of the credit rating for the United States. With sequestration — which President Obama foolishly agreed to, thinking Congress would never go this far — the government has put a wheel-lock on a car that keeps trying to get some traction.
Meanwhile, not a day passes without some member of this ruling majority saying something outrageous. Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, for example, has endorsed the far-side-of-the-moon conspiracy theory that the government is buying up all the bullets to keep gun owners from stocking their home arms depots. As for Gohmert, earlier this year he nominated Allen West, a man who isn’t even a member of Congress (he lost in November) to be Speaker of the House. Harvey, the invisible rabbit, was not available.
Gohmert, like others in the House crazy caucus, has benefited from a gerrymandered district. He can do anything short of denouncing Jesus and get re-elected.
The Beltway chorus of the moment blames President Obama for his inability to move his proposals through a dunderheaded Congress. They wonder how Republicans would be treating a silken-tongued charmer like Bill Clinton if he were still in the White House. We already know: not a single Republican voted for Clinton’s tax-raising budget, the one that led to our last federal surplus. Plus, they impeached him; his presidency was saved only in the Senate.
Obama may be doomed to be a reactive president in his second term, with even the most common-sense proposals swatted down because, well — if he’s for it, Republicans will have to be against it. What could be a signature achievement, immigration reform, faces quicksand in the House. But a gerrymander is good for only a decade or so. Eventually, demography and destiny will catch up with a Congress that refuses to do the people’s bidding.