“I’m going to be brief … because so many members are waiting,” Nancy Pelosi is saying. She raises her hand and makes a sweeping gesture to the House floor. Most of the nearly 500 brown leather chairs in the House of Representatives are empty. A dozen members of Congress — including Democratic representatives Peter Welch, John Lewis, and Marcy Kaptur — have gathered here on Tuesday night to pay homage to John Dingell, the longest-serving member of Congress in U.S. history.
Dingell, a Democrat who joined the House in 1955, isn’t here to enjoy the celebration. Earlier in the day, he’d fallen and bruised his hip and needed to watch from the doctor’s office. But no matter: The congressman, who presided over the passage of Medicare and was a persistent advocate for universal health care reform over his 59 years in the House — will be feted by his colleagues again in the coming days.
While Pelosi is talking, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer crosses over to the Republican side of the chamber. Michele Bachmann is sitting alone. She has scheduled 5:30 p.m. as the time to give her last House floor speech to Congress, and the Dingell tribute is running over time.
She waits another ten minutes, reapplying lipstick and giving John Lewis a hug when he finishes his speech. Finally, it’s her turn to speak. In four terms in Congress, the Minnesota lawmaker has distinguished herself as one of the left’s most reviled members of the Republican Congress, a cartoonish avatar of everything they hate about the GOP. Her floor speeches used to be Daily Show catnip. Now she’s retiring after eight years, maybe because of an investigation from the FEC into whether her 2012 presidential campaign made illegal payments to an Iowa state lawmaker, or maybe because she’s realized — as so many other members of Congress have — that the dysfunction of Congress makes the job a drag.
Before her election, she says, she was “essentially a nobody from nowhere.” But the good people of her Congressional district had given her amazing opportunity for outsized influence. She speaks to an empty chamber. Only one man remains on the floor; the rest of the lawmakers have cleared out after the last Dingell tribute. A handful of visitors sit in the gallery.
She pays tribute to the historic figures whose portraits wound around the perimeter of the chamber, the “lawgivers for whom veneration is required,” pointing to Hammurabi, giving a special call-out to Moses, who “was chosen by the God we trust to be entrusted with the basis of all law.” She thanks a lot of people: her voters and donors and volunteers; mother, father, and step-parents; brothers and stepbrothers and stepsisters; veterans; her five children and 23 foster children (“I often joke, yes, I am the old woman in the shoe”); her press director, “who does such a wonderful job every day challenging me to make sure I can be as good as I can and keeps me from making the mistakes I am all too prone to make”; the Capitol Police; the clerk’s office. “I want to give a shout-out to James, who runs the railroad car in the basement of the Rayburn building,” she says, referring to the little trains that shuttle members underground between the Capitol and their office buildings. “James has become a wonderful friend, a man of God. We literally had tears in our eyes as we were saying good-bye to each other in the last few days.” She also thanks “Bonnie, the elevator lady who’s always so happy,” and “the two ladies at our lunch counter in the cloakroom … you are such wonderful cooks, you make such good sandwiches, and I always knew if I was short two dollars you’d see me through to the next day. So thank you for believing in my creditworthiness.”
It is not like Congress had nothing else to do on Tuesday. This was the day the Senate Intelligence Committee released its devastating 500-page torture report, outlining practices under the Bush administration that violated international law and misled the public, without producing actionable intelligence. Later in the evening, the House GOP released a $1.1 trillion spending bill to fund the government through September of next year. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to think that Bachmann, foe of most government spending and a House Intelligence Committee member who’s backed the CIA’s waterboarding practices, would be interested in such subjects. But it seems she’s gotten wistful in her last few days as a member of Congress. The night before, she posted photos on Twitter of the White House Christmas party. In one, she poses with Nancy Pelosi, prom-style. In another, she’s hugging Joe Biden.
And besides, while a few members of the Senate — most notably Senator Patrick Leahy — took to the floor to respond to the torture report, none of the action moved quickly enough to disrupt the pomp and circumstance of the proceedings in the House. On the floor, even the made-for-TV grandstanding that occasionally makes it into a cable news clip is carefully stage-managed. So, in a moment where you might expect to find lawmakers consulting with one another and debating the most serious events of the day, here instead is Michele Bachmann, saying good-bye to an empty House.
She closes out her speech by talking about the pilgrims, who sacrificed their lives for future generations. She issued one final thank-you, for the “privilege of also being a stepping stone to look to the future so that the next generations would live better than we would live today.”
“Thank you for the privilege,” she said, to no one in particular. With that, she walked away from the podium for the very last time.