By just about any measure, Congress is at its lowest point in history. Only 9 percent of the country has a favorable view of the 535 men and women who make up the bicameral body. One poll even revealed that they're less popular than cockroaches, traffic jams, and that ultimate barometer of public repulsion, Nickelback.
Why such unhappiness? Because our legislators rarely resemble human beings. When the main job requirements are boasting, begging for money and possessing the moral elasticity to promise anything to anyone, only narcissists and sociopaths need apply.
But within the cast of America's longest-running reality show, some manufacture a weirdness that soars above the rest. Meet the 10 members of Congress who are setting new records for creepiness and depravity.
New Times news feature
10. Ted Cruz (R-Texas): Protecting America's Golf Courses From an International Conspiracy
In just about any other state, Ted Cruz would be mumbling for spare change outside a Dollar General store. In Texas, he's a U.S. senator.
Cruz has been called the "intellectual voice of the Tea Party," a laurel on par with being the valedictorian of a carjacking ring. He's been known to brag that, as Texas state solicitor, he once nullified the divorce of two gay men. His biggest campaign applause line comes with the boast of how he had a man sentenced to death.
But it's Cruz's Agenda 21 conspiracy theory that sets him apart.
Agenda 21 is the kind of feel-good plan that's made the United Nations a model of ineffectiveness for nearly 70 years. It's a vaguely worded, non-binding, 300-page resolution that reads like a fifth-grader's wish list for a better world. (Combat poverty! Prevent deforestation!)
The measure is so innocuous that known radical George H. W. Bush signed on in 1992, as did the heads of 178 other countries. Since then, it's been largely forgotten. Except by Cruz.
As he sees it, Agenda 21 is actually a conspiracy led by liberal financier George Soros to rob honest Americans of their property rights — two words sure to induce Pavlovian terror in anyone living west of the Mississippi.
Cruz claims Agenda 21 is a "globalist" plan to forcibly relocate rural Americans into urban "hobbit homes," which are too small for necessities like a still or a firing range. He also believes it will lead to the abolishment of paved roads and golf courses, threats scientifically proven to unbolt the wallets of Republican donors.
A Princeton debate champion with a law degree from Harvard, Cruz has yet to provide any evidence of the plot. Which should make him a force in the Iowa GOP primary come 2016.
9. Alan Grayson (D-Florida): The Loudest of the Loudmouths
In a town full of bluster, no one blows harder than Florida Congressman Alan Grayson, a Category 5 hurricane of bombast.
A trial lawyer who specialized in contractor fraud, Grayson burst onto the scene after winning election in 2008 as the loudest critic of the Iraq War. The Democrat was funny, clever, and had a way with words you might expect of someone who made his living convincing juries to give him money.
Yet as righteous as that original cause may have been, he soon earned a reputation as the biggest contributor to the partisan firefight disabling Washington, resulting in his being the only Democrat nominated for this list by members of his own party.
Of former vice president Dick Cheney, Grayson once said: "I have trouble listening to what he says sometimes because of the blood that drips from his teeth while he's talking."
On another occasion, he noted that "scientists have studied this difficult question of why some people have a conscience and some people don't. Some people are called Democrats, and some people are called Republicans."
Grayson also referred to a female adviser to the Federal Reserve as a "K Street whore." His opponents, meanwhile, are best known as "foot-dragging, knuckle-dragging Neanderthals."
Though he may be more artful of tongue than the average politician, he shares his colleagues' gift for situational ethics when the going gets tough.
In 2010, for example, he was on the verge of losing his seat in central Florida to Republican challenger Daniel Webster. That's when the anti-war Grayson trotted out the go-to smear of tin patriots everywhere. He released a campaign commercial referring to Webster as a draft dodger who didn't love his country.
Webster, it turns out, had been rejected for military service on medical grounds during the Vietnam War. But to Grayson, this meant his opponent was practically a terrorist. He began referring to Webster as "Taliban Dan."
Grayson lost that election, and Washington got a little less breezy. But the winds resumed last fall when he won a newly drawn seat centered in Clearwater, Florida. Among his first acts was to coin a new term for Republicans: the "bath salts caucus."
Like all Grayson one-liners, it was funny, and even contained a kernel of truth. But it wasn't particularly helpful in getting members of Congress to put down their plastic swords and do something useful for the country.
8. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tennessee): The Anti-Abortion Zealot With a Running Tab at Planned Parenthood
Scott DesJarlais, a family doctor from the outback of Tennessee, is stridently pro-life, known for his righteous denunciations of abortion and adultery.
"All life should be cherished and protected," he declares on his website. Except when that life poses an inconvenience for Scott DesJarlais.
His problems began when he cheated on his first wife in an affair with a patient, and the patient got pregnant.
To save his marriage — and prove the affair was over — the Tennessee Tomcat devised the most misguided coverup since Watergate. He secretly recorded a conversation with his mistress in which he pressured her to get an abortion.
The cherished life of his child had become a "problem" that needed to be "fixed."
"You told me you'd have an abortion," DesJarlais says on the tape. "And now we're getting too far along without one."
As you might expect, his ham-fisted reconciliation plan backfired. As it turns out, DesJarlais wasn't just a serial philanderer; he'd also spent years compiling frequent-flier miles at Planned Parenthood.
Last November, the congressman's 700-page divorce-trial testimony went public. In it, he admitted to affairs with three co-workers, a drug rep, and two other patients. He also confessed to encouraging his wife to get two abortions before they were married.
But these revelations didn't move DesJarlais to a healthy round of soul-searching. Instead, he played the victim card, blaming a political opponent for "false personal attacks."
When that didn't work — he'd taped his own confession, after all — he took cover in religion, claiming that God had given him a mulligan.
"I know God's forgiven me," DesJarlais announced. "I simply ask my fellow Christians and constituents to do the same." In other words, if his constituents weren't up for "grace and redemption," they were rejecting direct orders from the Lord himself.
DesJarlais was abandoned by members of his own party. The Tennessee Conservative Union, the largest and oldest right-wing group in the state, demanded that he resign.
"The level of shamefulness was unprecedented," says Tennessee Democratic spokesman Brandon Puttbrese. "This is a doctor who had sex with patients and then tried to lecture people on healthcare policy, as if he gave a good damn about being an ethical physician."
Yet the cloak of God still trumps hypocrisy in the fundamentalist backwaters of middle Tennessee. DesJarlais was re-elected by a comfortable margin last fall, allowing him to carry on as Washington's official face of grace and redemption.
7. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa): Burning Through Billions on Quack Science
In January, Senator Tom Harkin announced that he would retire in 2015. Washington was soon to lose its biggest advocate for questionable science.
Harkin is most responsible for the creation and continued survival of a little-known office called the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. If it sounds relatively harmless, that's the problem.
Harkin's interest in alternative medicine came from personal experience. After trying everything to rid himself of a hay fever allergy, the senator reportedly found relief through heavy dosing of bee pollen, taking up to 60 pills a day.
At the time, he happened to be the chairman of a subcommittee responsible for funding the National Institutes of Health. So in 1991, he introduced a law that would allow the agency to "investigate and validate . . . unconventional medical practices" — like his bee-pollen cure.
"This was the equivalent of a politician starting an organization to investigate UFOs, the Bermuda Triangle, and every other kooky conspiracy theory that's out there," says Alex Berezow, editor of online site RealClearScience and author of the book Science Left Behind. "This was the X-Files of medical research."
Investigating is certainly something the center has done. It's the validating part that has caused trouble, much to Harkin's dismay.
Though the agency's budget started at a paltry $2 million, like everything else in Washington, it has metastasized, to nearly $130 million annually. It has blown through billions testing dubious "cures" better left to late-night infomercials. The effect of distant prayer on AIDS. Harp music on stress levels. Therapeutic touch on bone cancer.
Unsurprisingly, not one of these methods has proved effective. In fact, in his attempt to legitimize alternative medicine, Harkin actually has accomplished the opposite: He's managed to nearly discredit it entirely.
Study after center study has shown that placebos are just as effective as Harkin's homeopathic miracles. In some cases, the "cures" were actually found to make things worse, as when the center discovered that St. John's wort rendered certain cancer drugs less effective.
That the scientific method is able to weed the good from the bad would seem to be the one positive outcome of Harkin's two-decade misadventure. Yet the senator sees it as "discrimination," lamenting that his agency has been "disproving things rather than seeking out and approving things."
Unfortunately for Harkin, that's how science works.
6. Dana Rohrabacher (R-California): When Tragedy Strikes, You Can Never Go Wrong by Blaming the Muslims
Dana Rohrabacher isn't a central-casting conservative. The Laguna Beach congressman surfs, wears Hawaiian shirts under his blazers, and has admitted to doing everything except slurp the bongwater when it comes to drugs.
But when it comes to seeing Muslims around every dark corner, Rohrabacher is the self-anointed flag-bearer of the Republican fringe.
Take the Oklahoma City bombing: Though all evidence points to a plot executed by homegrown goobers, Rohrabacher was certain the Muslims were to blame.
So he traveled to a supermax prison in Colorado to interview co-conspirator Terry Nichols. The congressman was convinced that Nichols had been taught to build bombs in the Philippines by Ramsi Yousef, the man behind the first World Trade Center attack. He also sent a staffer to the island nation to prove the connection.
Yet Nichols, who had every incentive to throw blame elsewhere, admitted there was no conspiracy.
A year later, Rohrabacher stumbled into a new black hole, this one involving the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy.
On the night in 1968 when Kennedy was murdered by Sirhan Sirhan, the congressman was attending a different election party at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. He claims he saw "another Arab" tackled and arrested by police in the lobby.
Naturally, the spotting of two Arabs in a single L.A. hotel could not be coincidence. To Rohrabacher, it could only mean one thing: a vast Palestinian conspiracy!
Fast-forward to the day in 2007 that Sirhan, an inmate at California State Prison, Corcoran, was told by guards that someone named "Diana" had arrived to see him. Instead of a woman visitor, however, Sirhan found himself face-to-face with Rohrabacher and two aides. He assured the congressman there was no conspiracy.
"I think [Rohrabacher's] kookiness is part of what's kept him in Washington," says Debbie Cook, the former mayor of Huntington Beach, who came closest to unseating the 13-term representative. "The more he keeps his name in the press, the better he does."
Even without the support of convicted killers, Rohrabacher's conspiracy theories soldier on. His latest emerged after the slayings of Libyan ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi. The congressman took to Twitter to suggest that President Obama had left the men to die to ensure his re-election.
It was a bizarre assertion, given that dead ambassadors rarely make for effective campaign commercials.
5. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas): Loud, Proud, and Without a Functioning Cerebral Cortex
In January, Republican leaders convened in Charlotte to lick their wounds from the last election. Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal got straight to the point: "We must stop being the stupid party."
No one better exemplifies Jindal's lament than the man whose district shares Louisiana's border, Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert. Or, as the spokesperson for Texas's Democratic Party calls him, "our go-to guy when we want a crazy quote."
Gohmert's apparent strategy: The louder and crazier he talks, the less anyone will notice his lack of a functioning cerebral cortex.
Take the February 2012 hearing at which Gohmert claimed the trans-Alaska pipeline was responsible for a booming caribou population. Flowing oil warmed the ground, he explained, serving as an aphrodisiac for the antlered set.
"So when they want to go on a date, they invite each other to head over to the pipeline," claimed the Carrie Bradshaw of imaginary science.
Less amusing were comments in the wake of two high-profile shootings. After the Sandy Hook massacre, he said of the school's murdered principal: "I wish to God she had an M-4 in her office."
Following the movie-theater slaughter in Aurora, Colorado, he bemoaned the fact that no one had pulled a gun, allowing for "ongoing attacks on Judeo-Christian beliefs" — as if deranged killer James Holmes had somehow struck a blow for atheism.
Gohmert tried to remedy this perceived cowardice in his own workplace, introducing legislation that would allow politicians to carry pistols in the Capitol. (Like nearly all legislation he proposes, it went nowhere.)
But Gohmert's weirdness reaches beyond guns and caribou. Any conservative congressman worth his American-flag lapel pin must have a Muslim conspiracy theory. So Gohmert fabricated one more lacking in evidence than all the rest.
His latest outcry is the "terror babies" conspiracy, a scenario in which scores of pregnant Muslim women fly to the United States solely to give birth, and the children then return to the Middle East to undergo decades of anti-American indoctrination. Once the kids reach maturity, they fly back to blow up a small chunk of the country, thus completing their mission.
Unfortunately for Gohmert, the FBI gives no credence to his theory. And when told by CNN's Anderson Cooper that the notion was ridiculous, Gohmert offered no evidence to the contrary.
Instead, he compared himself to Winston Churchill, telling Cooper that "the explosions will not happen for 10 or 15 or 20 years, and then you will be one of those blips."
It doesn't quite sound like the new intellectual Republican Party Jindal is aiming for.
4. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas): The Queen of Mean in the Nation's Capital
Houston's Sheila Jackson Lee arrived in Congress in 1995. It took just 11 days for the first of Lee's staff members to quit, and the congresswoman has shown no sign of slowing down since.
Every year, Washingtonian magazine runs a survey of the "meanest" bosses on Capitol Hill. Lee has never finished outside of the top three. According to employees, she often refers to them as "morons," "idiots" and the always-endearing "stupid motherfuckers."
"I am a queen, and I demand to be treated like a queen," she once told an aide, according to the Houston Press.
When she flies home for visits, she demands that a staffer be waiting with a motorized car to whisk her from the gate. And when she goes abroad, while the rest of the congressional delegation usually travels by military bus, nothing less than a black Mercedes will do to squire her around town.
Although government employees are banned from performing personal services for elected officials, Roll Call magazine discovered that Lee was ordering low-paid workers to run errands during off-hours. Some chauffeured her to the hairdresser. Others picked up her laundry. One was summoned from bed after midnight to fetch a bottle of garlic supplements.
The work environment is so bad that one ex-employee was warned by a doctor to either quit or die from the stress. "It's like being an Iraq War veteran," said another.
All this might be easier to swallow if Lee were abusing her power for something important. Yet when it comes to being ineffectual, she's the Democratic answer to Louie Gohmert.
The congresswoman is known as a grandstander extraordinaire, her floor speeches both endless and mind-blistering. At the start of one such effort, journalist Robert Draper counted 100 Democrats on the House floor. Within the first minute, 80 had fled for cover.
"If she was effective, it'd be forgivable," says a Texas Republican who asked not to be named. "But she's not. The only reason she proposes anything is to get airtime."
In fact, abusing employees may be Lee's only achievement after 18 years in Washington. No member of Congress has proposed more failed amendments, indicative of her lack of legislative juice. According to C-Span, Lee has had 39 proposals spiked in the past year alone.
3. Trent Franks (R-Arizona): You Say "Tomato," He Says "Abortion"
Arizona Congressman Trent Franks is the John Coltrane of Congress. He's managed to spend the past decade in Washington playing but one note: an extreme take on abortion.
He may be the country's most irrelevant congressman, passing exactly zero of the 45 bills he's sponsored. Few have been taken seriously enough to even merit a vote.
As Frank sees it, his job isn't to move America forward. It's to talk, talk, and talk some more about abortion.
"Abortion has been his one and only issue," says Arizona Democratic Party spokesman Frank Camacho. "That's his main claim to fame."
This proved true during a recent House debate on fiscal policy, when Illinois Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. — who recently pleaded guilty to blowing $750,000 in campaign contributions on his wife and himself — asked whether anyone could explain a balanced-budget amendment. Franks eagerly offered his assistance. "I'll give it a shot," he said.
He then proceeded to talk for three minutes about — what else? — abortion. And Nazis.
Franks has called Obama the "abortion president," and once claimed that abortion laws were more devastating to blacks than slavery.
But his zealotry hasn't been particularly effective. Unable to pass national legislation, he lowered his sights to the capital city, pushing a law that would ban women in Washington, D.C., from having an abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
When D.C. residents objected in a novel way — by lining up outside Franks' office and asking the Arizona legislator they sarcastically called "mayor" to fix potholes — Franks clumsily sidestepped. "District of Columbia is not the issue," he said. "It's the pain of the child."
The protesters, however, had little to fear. The bill soon died on the House floor. Like everything else Franks does, it was merely one more piece of amateur theater in an ongoing show with no end.
2. Paul Broun (R-Georgia): Science Is the Devil's Playground
One of the more distressing movements in Jindal's "stupid party" is its increasingly anti-scientific fervor. Leading the charge is Georgia Congressman Paul Broun, who believes that science is the Devil's work. Literally.
"All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the Big Bang Theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell," Broun once declared.
This didn't stop Republican leaders from appointing him to the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, a decision akin to Apple hiring Nicki Minaj to head its research division.
In a speech before a sportsmen's club, Broun told the audience that though Jesus hates science, Our Savior showed a great deal of enthusiasm in getting Paul Broun elected to Congress and helping him kill a Kodiak bear and two lions.
He's also accused President Obama of upholding the Soviet constitution rather than the U.S. version. Among his proudest moments: He claims to be the first politician to call Obama a "socialist."
Though Broun represents a fundamentalist swath outside Atlanta, his anti-science views don't reflect a sliver of sanity in his district known as Athens, home to the University of Georgia. So biologist Jim Leebens-Mack started a write-in campaign against the congressman.
Instead of running himself, Mack encouraged voters to back a new candidate: Charles Darwin. Broun may have won re-election, but the long-deceased Darwin still managed to get 4,100 votes.
1. Michele Bachmann (R-Minnesota): The Demagogue Slugger With Power to All Fields
Years from now, historians will look back on the year 2013 and think to themselves, Michele Bachmann? Really?
She's the rare politician who can demagogue any issue — and the only member of Congress weird enough to be nominated by everyone contacted for this story, be they Republican or Democrat. If there's a crusade requiring crazy talk, Bachmann is sure to be yammering on a newscast near you.
Perhaps only Donald Trump rivals her thirst for attention, a neediness that often causes her to fabricate arguments from Play-Doh. She's claimed that hundreds of scientists and Nobel Prize winners support intelligent design, and that same-sex marriage will force judges to tell little kids, "Homosexuality is normal, and you should try it."
During an appearance on the Today show, Bachmann suggested that the HPV vaccine could cause mental retardation. She's also intimated that there's a direct correlation between swine flu outbreaks and Democratic presidencies.
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Finally, she's claimed that no study has ever shown that carbon dioxide is harmful to the environment — neglecting the hundreds of studies concluding just that.
But her worst stunt came last year, when she launched a McCarthy-esque witch hunt to rid Washington of Muslim Brotherhood infiltrators. Her prime suspect was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's top aide, Huma Abedin, whose only crime was having a foreign-sounding name.
But even if she were voted out tomorrow, Bachmann's legacy would live on: Roughly a third of this list is composed of frequent Bachmann co-conspirators. Not only is she their leader, but she's a role model, too, the crazy North Star that guides them, even as she makes an ever-growing number of Americans question this whole experiment we call democracy.