‘Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.’ –Mark Twain

By Henry I. Miller, MS, MD — Jun 25, 2024
Given the evident mental impairment and startling ignorance of certain politicians, maybe the nation's law- and policy-making would benefit from politicians undergoing voluntary periodic testing of mental status and intelligence.

Congress continued to rank dead last in the most recent Gallup poll of public confidence in institutions. Only 7 percent of those polled said they have a “Great deal/Quite a lot of confidence” in it.

That’s hardly a surprise. Last year, the U.S. Senate looked more and more like a Saturday Night Live parody of an eldercare facility than the upper chamber of Congress. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) had a shingles infection in February that developed into encephalitis, from which she never fully recovered. Marked by inflammation and swelling of the brain, post-shingles encephalitis can leave patients with lasting memory or language problems, bouts of confusion, mood disorders, headaches, and difficulty walking. Indeed, Sen. Feinstein seemed constantly disoriented until her death in September. California was thus effectively deprived of half of its Senate representation for seven months.

On the other side of the aisle, while conversing with reporters, Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) on two occasions had episodes of a kind of stupor that could have been transient ischemic attacks (TIAs) or seizures. Moreover, he looks and sounds much older and frailer than he did prior to a fall and concussion in March of 2023.

But aside from such definable physical maladies that impair them, Representatives and Senators often squabble, posture, prevaricate, and say and do things that strain credulity. It is no coincidence that insulting the intelligence of members of Congress is such a staple of American folk wisdom. “Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself,” quipped Mark Twain. “When Congress makes a joke, it’s a law, and when they make a law, it’s a joke,” said Will Rogers.

Too often, though, the joke is on us. A friend of mine was seated at a banquet table with the family of then-Congressman Dan Glickman (D-KS).  Family members expressed relief that the congressman found a career in politics because none of them thought he was smart enough to enter the family business — processing scrap metal. (Glickman later served for six years as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.)

“When I was debating what became the 2008 Farm Bill,” Colorado congressman John Salazar (D-CO) related, “I had a member of the Agriculture Committee actually ask me if chocolate milk really comes from brown cows. I asked if he was joking, and he assured me he wasn’t.” In the same category was the concern of Representative Hank Johnson (D-GA) that stationing 8,000 U.S. military personnel on Guam would cause the island to “become so overly populated that it will tip over and capsize.”

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) has long been the gift that keeps on giving. She once proclaimed that the U.S. Constitution was 400 years old. As a member of the House Science Committee, Lee, during a visit to the Mars Pathfinder Operations Center, asked a NASA scientist whether the Pathfinder probe had photographed the flag that astronaut Neil Armstrong left behind in 1969. Armstrong had, of course, left the flag on the moon, not Mars. In 2010, Lee proclaimed on the House floor that “victory had been achieved” by the United States in the Vietnam War and that “today, we have two Vietnams: side-by-side, north and south, exchanging and working.” Lee was a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee when she made that statement, confusing Vietnam with Korea.

In 2022, Jackson Lee suggested that President Joe Biden’s low approval rating was due to voters' frustration with the summer heat and more recently, she offered this pearl: “Sometimes you need to take the opportunity just to come out and see a full moon is that complete rounded circle, which is made up mostly of gases.” I'm sure that is a revelation to the astronauts who have walked on the moon.

I once attended a conference where Representative Tom Bliley (R-VA)--then chairman of the powerful House Commerce Committee — spoke by teleconference. As he read from a prepared statement, he included the instructions — such as “pause for emphasis” — that had been inserted by his speechwriter. Where one line had inadvertently been  duplicated, Bliley read it a second time.

Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) once claimed during a hearing that a single elementary school in Illinois received $5 billion in federal funding to teach “Critical Race Theory.” The reality is that under the American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Relief program, the entire state of Illinois received approximately that amount, which was divided among 851 school districts. She was banned from Twitter during the height of the pandemic after she inaccurately posted that coronavirus vaccines were "failing" and called on regulators not to approve new shots.

Rep. Taylor Greene's claim to the title of Doyenne of Dumb was summarized thusly by Dr. Eric Topol:

"On November 13, 2023, Marjorie Taylor Greene (R, Georgia) held a meeting to discuss COVID vaccines. Greene had already made a name for herself by claiming that Jewish space lasers had caused wildfires in California, that Donald Trump was fighting a worldwide sex-slavery ring, that Muslims don’t belong in government, that the shootings in Parkland, Sandy Hook and Las Vegas were staged, and that 9/11 was an inside job. Who better to educate the press and the public about COVID and COVID vaccines?"

Her cluelessness was evident again more recently when, on June 13th, the House overwhelmingly defeated an amendment she had introduced to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which specified that “None of the funds made available by this Act may be used for assistance to Ukraine.” At best, the amendment was superfluous because, as House Armed Services Committee Chair Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), noted prior to the vote, the NDAA does not appropriate any funds for Ukraine. Moreover, he pointed out that that the amendment would cut off funding to maintain the presence of Marines at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv and that it would prevent the Department of Defense from being able to monitor U.S. weapons systems already in Ukraine -- a good reminder that ignorance can have important consequences.

Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo), speaking at a religious service, said she is “tired” of the separation of church and state in the United States, telling worshipers: “The church is supposed to direct the government. The government is not supposed to direct the church. That is not how our Founding Fathers intended it.” Maybe she needs a refresher on the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” which has long been interpreted to mandate the separation of church and state.

wrote in 2021 about the unmistakable signs of President Biden’s dementia, which have progressed since then -– confusion, mumbling, slurred speech, misspeaking, and exhibiting impaired judgment, such as twice comparing the catastrophic Maui conflagration to a small kitchen fire years before at his Delaware home.

No discussion of muddled thinking by politicians can ignore Vice President Kamala Harris. Last July, she delivered a memorable message on the concept of "culture." "Culture is — it is a reflection of our moment in our time, right? And in present culture is the way we express how we’re feeling about the moment," Harris said at a New Orleans music festival. She continued: "And we should always find times to express how we feel about the moment that is a reflection of joy, because as you know, it comes in the morning." Her conclusion: "We have to find ways to also express the way we feel about the moment in terms of just having language and a connection to how people are experiencing life. And I think about it in that way, too." Whew!

Psychiatrist Glenn Swogger and I wrote in 2016 about Donald Trump’s evident Narcissistic Personality Disorder. We listed the diagnostic symptoms of the disorder, and enumerated the traits of people with it: “self-referential, arrogant and grandiose, constantly telling themselves and others how superior they are; and they treat those lesser mortals who do not accept their declarations of superiority with contempt, attacking and belittling them.” Sound familiar?

I propose that candidates and incumbents, including the president and vice president, should be asked to volunteer for periodic testing of intelligence, mental status, and for signs of psychopathology, and that the results be made public. After all, we often demand to know whether a candidate has recovered from open-heart surgery, cancer, or strokes, and many states require elderly drivers to get relicensed.

A mental status exam offers an assessment of cognitive abilities, memory, and thought processes. It includes assessments of alertness, speech, behavior, awareness of environment, mood, affect, rationality of thought processes, appropriateness of thought content (presence of delusions, hallucinations, or phobias), memory, and the ability to perform simple calculations. It also assesses judgment (“If you found a letter on the ground in front of a mailbox, what would you do with it?”) and higher reasoning, such as the ability to interpret proverbs (such as “a stitch in time saves nine”). A useful adjunct would be the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, or MMPI, a standardized test of personality traits and psychopathology commonly used by psychologists.

A possible addition would be an intelligence test, which measures various parameters thought to correlate with academic or financial achievement. Every politician need not be a genius, but I’d like those who represent me to know that chocolate milk doesn’t come from brown cows and that space lasers aren't causing wildfires.

“Congress consists of one-third, more or less, scoundrels; two-thirds, more or less, idiots; and three-thirds, more or less, poltroons,” H.L. Mencken observed. Testing might help us weed out a few idiots. Getting rid of the scoundrels and poltroons will have to be accomplished in other ways.

Henry I. Miller, MS, MD

Henry I. Miller, MS, MD, is the Glenn Swogger Distinguished Fellow at the American Council on Science and Health. His research focuses on public policy toward science, technology, and medicine, encompassing a number of areas, including pharmaceutical development, genetic engineering, models for regulatory reform, precision medicine, and the emergence of new viral diseases. Dr. Miller served for fifteen years at the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in a number of posts, including as the founding director of the Office of Biotechnology.

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