February 24th, 2012
12:01 PM ET

The latest legislative tool: Satire

For the very serious business of making serious laws for states with legitimately serious problems, there’s an unexpected streak of comedic wackiness running through governmental chambers.

Consider a sample of legislative work since the start of 2012:

Alaska Rep. Kyle Johansen, R-Alaska, proposed the federal government take over New York’s Central Park and make it a development-free wilderness area as a way to blast back at those he says are in the way of drilling the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Wyoming legislators followed up with a bill in support of Alaska's measure.

In Mississippi, Democratic lawmaker Stephen Holland introduced a bill to change the name of the Gulf of Mexico to the Gulf of America. It's a swipe at Republicans who he says want to push everything having to do with Mexico out of the state.

To get more - ahem - personal, Democratic Oklahoma Sen. Constance Johnson wrote a provision for an anti-abortion bill that said men can ejaculate only into women’s vaginas, lest lives be wasted. Virginia Democrat Janet Howell amended an anti-abortion bill to require rectal exams for men before they could get erectile dysfunction medications.

This week Rep. Yasmin Neal, D-Georgia, tired of an anti-abortion debate she says ignored women’s points of view, introduced a bill that would block men from having vasectomies unless the procedure would prevent death or serious injury.

Nevermind filibusters, lobbyists and legislative majorities; when lawmakers really want the world to know their opinions, they crack a joke, keep a straight face and wait for the tweets to start.

“Irony has a lot of currency these days,” said Jeffrey P. Jones, author of "Entertaining Politics: New Political Television and Civic Culture" and director of Old Dominion University's Institute of Humanities. “It’s kind of a new public language.”

The way Jones sees it, American government is in a stormy period of red-faced ideological posturing, and legislators might have realized that quiet farce can be more effective than yelling louder.

“The divisions seem so intense, irony is kind of a way to break out of that mold, garner attention and get people to stop and think,” Jones said.

Nobody expects to go swimming in the Gulf of America this summer (although, Johansen’s Central Park resolution did have a hearing, and Howell’s rectal exam amendment was just a few votes shy of approval.) Legislators made their point by putting some dry wit on the public record and drawing the gaze of media.

There's nothing particularly new here - satire, irony and sarcasm have lightened the mood while making a point since the age of Aristophanes. But they travel beautifully in the age of Twitter trends and late-night comedy; Neal and her anti-vasectomy bill popped up on blogs and Facebook, and news networks - this one, included - were on the story before The Onion needed to make it up.

“I expected this to be a Georgia issue. It’s not anymore," Neal said.

Reproductive rights debates on the state level

Of course, it can backfire. Stephen Colbert’s 2010 Congressional testimony on immigration - “masterful as a rhetorical act,” Jones said - was roundly panned as “an embarrassment” and "a real joke" by Republican legislators. To those who take government most seriously, policy testimony from a comedian wasn’t so funny.

Neal, a law enforcement officer in her first term as a state legislator, admits she took a risk with the anti-vasectomy bill. Georgia Republican Rep. Doug McKillip, who sponsored the abortion-limiting bill, called the anti-vasectomy bill a “poor attempt at humor,” and plenty of online comments railed against wasted time and resources.

Neal said she feels like her colleagues paid attention like they hadn't before, and most laughed about the anti-vasectomy bill. After a collective crossing of legs, America seemed to giggle at it, too.

“As a female in the general assembly, you have to be careful – what you wear, what you look like. You have to be good and then a little bit better,” Neal said. “I felt I could do a pretty good job of molding the conversation. I trust Georgians and Americans. I knew they’d get it, and they do.”

The 7,382 state legislators introduce between 200,000 and 220,000 bills in a two-year term, Karl Kurtz, an analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures points out. The recent spate of satirical legislation might be a fad, courtesy of fast-moving news and legislators borrowing each other's ideas, although there's plenty of just-for-fun legislation in the record books.

“There are always going to be some oddballs and jokes and attention-getters,” Kurtz said.

Fear not, lovers of Central Park and vasectomies: Legislatures, Kurtz said, are designed to say no. Of all the bills introduced, less than one-fifth pass.

For now, it seems likely the spermatozoon of Georgia’s men will flow as freely (or not) as the fellas choose; the true test of the anti-vasectomy bill might be whether the abortion-limiting bill becomes a law.

Satire drew attention for Neal's cause this time, but would she try it again?

She winces a little: “I’m going to be picky about the next one.”

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Filed under: Georgia • Health • Politics
soundoff (649 Responses)
  1. Althalos

    This is not the same as abortion and this is stupid. The topics of vasectomy and abortion are two very different cases. In the case of abortion you are deliberately killing a baby when it has been conceived in the womb. This is completely different from a vasectomy.

    February 27, 2012 at 6:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • J R Brown

      You realize that you're posting to a predominantly liberal environment, don't you? Throwing a bit of common sense into the mix like you're doing is a HUGE waste of time. If liberals had any common sense...well, they wouldn't be liberals.

      February 29, 2012 at 11:08 am | Report abuse |
  2. Don Jones

    Isn't congress enough of a joke already? Do you think that sponsored bills are free??? Like a frivolous lawsuit, superfluous bills cost legislative time and taxpayer money.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:20 am | Report abuse |
  3. Tiffany

    Let's put a satirical mandatory retroactive abortion law on the ballot.

    February 28, 2012 at 8:41 am | Report abuse |
  4. lweba

    Is the State ready to take care of unwanted pregnancies? If nature does away with 'Nature's unwanted pregnancies' why does the state decide the reverse? Remember many of unaborted unwanted pregnancies results to socially maladjusted citizens!

    February 29, 2012 at 8:19 am | Report abuse |
  5. J R Brown

    I'm so happy that nonsensical legislative efforts are being rewarded with positive publicity. That's exactly what we need more of...politicians grandstanding instead of being productive. I don't think we have enough grandstanding in politics...let's have MORE.

    Oh, and am I the only one who noticed that it's Democratic women who think their legislative responsibilities are so petty that they've nothing better to do than make "man-hating" addendums? Nice to see you take the responsiblity of your jobs seriously.

    The irony here is that Republicans wanted to stop convicted pedophiles from getting erectile dysfunction medicine in prison and the Democrats would have none of that noise but, apparently, it's ok to ask men to submit to a cardiac stress test to get them? I guess those convicted pedophiles have nothing better to do than get in shape in the pokey anyway....

    February 29, 2012 at 11:06 am | Report abuse |
  6. Allen retired

    I love it. If "we" (republicans) have the right of control over a womans reproductive organs than it should also include male reproductive organs. Especially since in a year to two some right wing representative will start screaming that "life" begins at erection.

    February 29, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Phil in Oregon

    Just imagine if the children being murdered had a vote on the issue.

    February 29, 2012 at 4:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • HWB

      Democrats have always been the party of mobs. They do not know any better and will never develope any civility.

      February 29, 2012 at 7:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • A1FXD

      I imagine their response would be, "Hey, how did I get in this trash can?"

      March 1, 2012 at 7:38 am | Report abuse |
  8. Only in America

    Just imagine what this all looks like from overseas. We have to look like absolute idiots, Rome is burning and these clods are distracted with this crap....

    February 29, 2012 at 7:38 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Me

    HWB wrote:
    "Democrats have always been the party of mobs. They do not know any better and will never develope any civility."
    – – –
    I can't let this one go. Liberals are very much into individual choice and independent thought. It's conservative that think and act like a mob. Just once, step out of your body and take a look at yourself and your rhetoric though the eyes of someone else. You're a lemming.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • CMB

      SO true !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      March 1, 2012 at 8:40 am | Report abuse |
  10. Johan Goetz

    Entering the seventh day at the top of the US news section. CNN must really be having hard times, relying more and more on blog-type posts for their main content rather than actual news stories.

    March 1, 2012 at 1:01 am | Report abuse |
  11. guti9179

    Im enjoying my Vasectomy! Can't trust condoms just like we can't trust politicians..

    March 1, 2012 at 1:33 am | Report abuse |
  12. mark

    I figure the next thing the socialist's will try is having all males over the age of 18 give sperm to be frozen then have a vasectomy and the women can only decide when to have a baby.

    March 1, 2012 at 1:43 am | Report abuse |
  13. MidWestern Boy

    Just because this comes from a Democrat, it doesn't mean that STUPIDITY should be confused with SATIRE. A waste of money and time, that is all this is.

    March 1, 2012 at 9:34 am | Report abuse |
  14. ProudMOM

    This lady obviously has missed the point altogether..Putting restrictions on abortions preserves the life of the unborn.Too bad they dont have a chance to voice their opinions on the matter.

    March 1, 2012 at 10:22 am | Report abuse |
  15. Sarah W

    The neighbor's little girl said to me yesterday that he starts to feel faint every time the mother talks that she wants new children. He also said that they have almost a million in debt. The girl is only five years old !

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q6DMxEUdbzI&w=640&h=390]

    . .
    >
    -

    April 13, 2012 at 11:36 am | Report abuse |
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