Is Congress really worse than ever? (4×8 – 12/14/12)

A Penny’s thoughts, Duluth’s ‘horrible’ film project, Marilyn goes to Hollywood, and the Indiana Jones mystery.

Today’s edition is shortened, due to illness. I will not be writing today. See you on Monday (hopefully).


Is the paralysis in the U.S. because of Congress’ inability a recent addition to the American experience? An interesting article comes from WCCO today on former congressman Tim Penny’s opinion of the “fiscal cliff” in Washington.

Not surprisingly, he’s disgusted with Congress. But it’s his comparison to the way things used to be that have us wondering whether “how it used to be” is how it was.

Says WCCO:

But the Democrat-turned-Independent who served six terms in the House says he would barely recognize today’s Congress as the body he served in from 1983-1995.

“Say what you will about (Former Speakers of the House) Tip O’Neill and Bob Dole, they understood that governing came first,” Penny said. “Now it seems politics is the order of the day and (both parties) aren’t really interested in solving problems, they’re just interested in trying to blame the other side.”

Time tends to block out trauma but the Congress Penny suggests he doesn’t recognize compared to the one in which he served is the one he warned us about when he quit the institution.

When Rep. Penny decided he’d had enough of Congress in November 1993, he wasn’t describing an institution that works. He described one that doesn’t.

To me it seemed better to make the break before anything other than public service clouded my mind. I reflect on the Founding Fathers and what they envisioned of our Congress, and I think that in most respects they would be disappointed with what th e y see today. In 200 years of American history, much has changed in our nation, and yet many of the basic constructs that our Founding Fathers made for us make as much sense today as they did 200 years ago.

They did not envision the kind of partisanship that dominates public policy-making today. They didn’t put the Democratic and Republican parties into the Constitution. In fact, our first President strongly argued against the divisive and counter-productive nature of partisan politics and cautioned against that sort of decision-making within Congress. The Founders warned against the evils of regional or partisan factionalism and conceived of Congress as a decision-making body that would rise above those considerations and focus instead on the overall interest of the country.

Yet today, virtually everything we do within the Congress has partisan undertones. The majority party sets all of the rules of the House; the majority party decides the ratios of committees; the majority party decides the staffing levels within those committees; the majority party sets the rules of debate. While in one respect that is true to our democratic process of majority rule, in other respects it neglects the sort of respect for minority viewpoints and minority rights that are also very much a part of our concept of democracy.

What may have changed is that many have come to realize what Penny determined in 1993. When Penny announced his reasons for departing, many Washington wags were aghast. If a congressman quits because he can’t get things done, the venerable The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour on PBS wondered, what hope is there?

Now, when a congressman gives up and quits the institution, nobody wonders why.


A filmmaker has started a Kickstarter campaign to fund his film project and has chosen Duluth as its locale, the Duluth News Tribune reports. Vincent Gargiulo had never heard of Duluth before, and seems to think it’s an OK place. But the name of his project is “Duluth is Horrible.”

The newspaper says the filmmaker has received a donation of $1.46 from someone from Duluth with the message, “Stay away from Duluth.” That could give him an idea for another movie title.


Marilyn Hagerty, who got national attention with her Grand Forks Herald food review of an Olive Garden restaurant, writes today that she’s on Bravo’s Top Chef this week.

That, she writes, started the comments about the original review rolling in again…

Gene Chiro from San Francisco remembered the Olive Garden review that brought notoriety. He said it was honest, well written, direct and to the point. The person who started me out on the viral trail last March said then that the column was “pathetic.”

Astrud Villareal, a medical student at the University of Texas Southwestern in Dallas wrote: “I just wanted you to know I really enjoyed watching you on Top Chef and of course reading your infamous Olive Garden review. I studied abroad in Denmark, so your mention of abelskiver made me miss the delicious food there. I am excited to read more about your columns and see your collaboration with Mr. Bourdain. Thank you.”

As the year 2012 winds down I am still delighted, amazed and puzzled over the business of going viral. It started in March after my Eatbeat column in the Herald about the new Olive Garden. For some weird reason, the review brought on a monstrous barrage of comments. I read somewhere that there were 1.3 million hits.


The University of Chicago admission department insists this isn’t a hoax, but someone sent a package to Indiana Jones. In the movie series, Jones a professor of archaeology at the University of Chicago.

The package does not actually have real stamps on it– the outside of the package was crinkly and dirty as if it came through the mail, but the stamps themselves are pasted on and look like they have been photocopied. There is no US postage on the package, but we did receive it in a bin of mail, and it is addressed to the physical address of our building, Rosenwald Hall, which has a distinctly different address from any other buildings where it might be appropriate to send it (Haskell Hall or the Oriental Institute Museum). However, although now home to the Econ department and College Admissions, Rosenwald Hall used to be the home to our departments of geology and geography.

What was in it? This stuff:


Here’s the whole story.

(h/t: Matt Wells)


Currently, it’s legal to buy pop, chips and cookies using food stamps under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. But increasingly, public health experts concerned about obesity are raising questions about that policy, pitting them against longtime allies in the hunger prevention community. Today’s Question: Should food stamp recipients be allowed to use their benefits to buy soda and junk food?


Daily Circuit (9-12 p.m.) – First hour: Friday roundtable on the fiscal cliff.

Second hour: Comedian W. Kamau Bell.

Third hour: BBC Documentary – The Cost of Doing Time (Part of the BBC’s ‘Real America Project)

MPR News Presents (12-1 pm): Rabbi Harold Kushner. The best-selling author’s speech was given this fall at the Basilica in Minneapolis about overcoming loss and disappointment, dealing with hard times, and his newest book, “The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person.”

Science Friday (1-2 p.m.) – A conversation with Ray Kurzweil about the nature of the human brain. Can we build a mind? Plus, Christmas tree science, and actor Alan Alda.