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. Mike

    Satire has already replaced reporting when it comes to explaining the big news stories of the day. Colbert's sendup of Super PAC funding and corporations as people did more to explain the issue than any news show, be it Fox, MSNBC, or the old big three (ABC, CBS, NBC). Writing laws as self-satire is a logical step for local, state, and federal governments – after all, they are all jokes at the expense of America already.

    February 25, 2012 at 1:56 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Caboose

    GOP=Religious theocracy

    February 25, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • ZZ2011

      and Oligarchy -

      February 25, 2012 at 6:10 pm | Report abuse |
  3. deanmyrick

    As I was reading about all the legislative ping-pong the only thought that came to mind is: Why does any level of government have anything to say about what any one of us does with our own bodies? As a Christian and a lifelong pro-lifer and Libertarian it pains me to say this but, the abortion-rights debate is a property rights issue at it's core. You own anything that is inside your body, period. I happen to believe that life begins at conception, that the fetus is one of God's children too, and that we will all answer to God for our actions while on this earth. But as a Libertarian I have to recognize the property rights of all individuals, and your first and most sacred piece of property is your own body. Without that inalienable God-given right to do what you wish with your own body and to not have it violated, you would have no other rights. THE GOVERNMENT NEEDS TO BUTT OUT OF THIS!! But when the government butts out they need to butt out all the way, and that means absolutely no public funding for healthcare services of any kind. It's your property! You pay to maintain it!

    February 25, 2012 at 4:18 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Steve

    This merely shows the depth of the stupidity of the current elected politicians. We face some of the most serious issues since the conception of our country. Time to vote all these people out, democrat or republican and elect those who can put the Country and people first.

    February 25, 2012 at 5:32 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Lloyd Revalee

    The biggest laugh is the ones the Congress gets out of the fact that the stupid voters have put them in office, and lets them remain ther until they have lost all their senses. If they ever had any.

    February 25, 2012 at 5:47 pm | Report abuse |
  6. TheAlaskaCurmudgeon

    If the Republicans would quit being idiots with all this pointless social legislation designed to turn America into a theocracy, the Democrats wouldn't have to submit these kinds of bills. And if the Republicans would stick to real issues (the economy, defense, the budget), they'd get the votes of a lot of us out here who hold our noses and vote Democrat because, if forced to choose, we'll take economic bankruptcy over theocracy.

    February 25, 2012 at 6:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • mcp123

      Except we aren't going bankrupt when the richest in this country hold over $ 40 trillion dollars in wealth. One time 25% tax would pay off the entire national debt.

      February 25, 2012 at 6:39 pm | Report abuse |
  7. vivian

    We are totally, completely, and wholly screwed. American politics is a cess pool. Everyone is to blame, especially the Republican Party. They essentially have dragged us all down into the gutter of fear based attack politics. Nobody dares to take the high road because they will be destroyed.

    America, you have exactly what you deserve: a plutocracy that is run by the corporations. DEMOCRACY IS DEAD.

    Money is God. America has been coopted, derailed, and undermined. People like Obama try so hard but they ind out quickly there is no honor left in American politics. All attempts at responsibility are sabotaged by special interests.

    God Bless America!!!

    February 25, 2012 at 6:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • anonymous

      Obama is the biggest puppet in american presidential history. I agree with your analysis of the government being in total disarray, but don't defend the president if you're going to knock everything else. He's not "trying" to do anything. He's obeying and doing nothing to make a difference. ALL ARE TO BLAME

      February 25, 2012 at 9:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • Puppet

      Stop abusing my name when you have no clue about what the word really means...keep drinking the kool-aid that your cult master gives you.

      February 25, 2012 at 9:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • alinnc

      Money is God. The biggest religion in the US is Moneytheism. It's been around for quite a while, but it's disciples have been working overtime recently and bringing in converts left and right (although mostly right), despite the fact that most of the recent converts are getting the shaft due to their new found religion.

      February 25, 2012 at 11:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • me138

      america was never a democracy to begin with.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:25 am | Report abuse |
  8. CuriousChap

    Hey, are my tax dollars going towards paying for this? I mean, they work for us and this is the product we're getting for our hard earned money that we have to turn around and give to our government. What a waste! Who can we hold accountable? I guess ourselves, because we put them there. We should really do a better job next time...

    February 25, 2012 at 8:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rickster

      Really? You want to blame us for for their lack of moral values and greed? How is it our fault when the pool we get to vote for was bought and paid for before they were put on the ballot?

      I say we simply get rid of congress all together. We have the means to allow every citizen in our country to vote, and be tallied. Unlike in the days when our country was founded. Instead of relying on some corrupt douche bag to vote for us, we should vote our selves.

      February 26, 2012 at 3:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chartreuxe

      What product?

      February 26, 2012 at 8:51 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Whitney

    Having a decision made about what can be done with someone's body is what abortion is. Some one decides that the baby should not be able to live, so they kill it. Infringing on the babies right to choose.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:14 am | Report abuse |
    • Just Me

      When that ball of cells you seem to think is a person can survive without sponging off the blood of the woman who's carrying it, then maybe you'll have an argument. Right now, that smudge is NOT a person...maybe a brainless vampire, but that's as close to anthropomorphizing as I'll agree to

      February 26, 2012 at 10:49 am | Report abuse |
    • Chartreuxe

      Not a baby, it's a fetus, and they parasitise their mothers until they are born. You know nothing of biology.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:54 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Jacko

    Every one of these idiots should be forced to pay the cost of the bill processing out of their own pockets.

    Then lets see who laughs

    February 26, 2012 at 2:03 am | Report abuse |
    • Chartreuxe

      As a taxpayer with a different viewpoint from yours I disagree with you, so suck it up, Jacko. This is a great idea and makes as much sense as the lack of progress brought to us by the Party of No. I applaud the idea!

      February 26, 2012 at 8:57 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Navin Johnson

    EVERY Bill ANY Republican brings up is a satirical one. They wouldn't recognize reality if it hit them in the face..

    February 26, 2012 at 2:14 am | Report abuse |
  12. fiskemann

    You can be sure that the elected officials in D.C. from South Dakota will show up to vote for stupid, satirical legislation.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:54 am | Report abuse |
  13. Sawwy Chalie

    CNN is for chumps.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:15 am | Report abuse |
    • Keith

      Hi chump.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chartreuxe

      How do you do, Chump Charlie. Nice to make your acquaintance. How's the wife and kids?

      February 26, 2012 at 8:58 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Keith

    Why exactly does the Catholic Church pay for Viagra? If God wanted the man to father a child, why does the man need Viagra? Sure seems like Viagra is interfering with the will of God.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:58 am | Report abuse |
  15. Keith

    Sen. Constance Johnson is absolutely right. Many religions disapprove of masturbation. God even killed Onan for spilling his seed on the ground. We must throw aside separation of church and state and use the power of the government to impose the religious beliefs of one group upon those of other religious beliefs. Who cares if our nation was founded by colonists who were fleeing the persecutions of their religion by people of other religions.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chartreuxe

      Well, now, I'm glad someone brought up that point. God didn't strike down Onan for spilling his (every man thinks his seed is holy) seed on the ground. Priests, men who supposedly never had sex have misinterpreted this story for centuries. Onan refused to impregnate his widowed sister-in-law: he owed Tamar a child because his brother, Er, died childless. In this particular case, Onan had to impregnate Tamar, it was his duty to see that his brother's line carried on after his death.

      However, because the child would not be Onan's child, he withdrew at the moment of climax to deny Tamar his seed, *this* was the sin God smote him for, not the general use of birth control but the specific denial of a baby to carry on Er's line.

      This is the entire foundation of the Catholic Church and their arbitrary stance against birth control: a misunderstanding of a single Bible story. If you ask a member of the Hebrew faith about this, they who wrote the Old Testament will tell you a different interpretation of Onan and Tamar. The people who wrote the Good Book (the Old Testament came from the HebrewTorah) have a better idea of what it means than the sexless men who came later.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:16 pm | Report abuse |
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