Kirby: Let's try beatings in Congress to end shutdown

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Washington •

As soon as I heard our government was on the verge of melting down, I got on a plane for the nation's capital. Big mistake.

We landed at Reagan International on Wednesday evening. We drove past the Washington Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Mall, the White House, and CIA headquarters. Everything looked foreclosed.

There were signs of life. Lots of confused tourists with cops telling them what was and wasn't open. Yes, the Smithsonian was closed. Yes, the toilets still worked.

Everyone (three people) I talked to was disgusted with the government, likening members of Congress to children in a sandbox rather than the overpaid and superhealth-insured people we elected to run our collective business.

Michigan guy: "I'll never vote for any of these [@&!?!] again!"

Nebraska woman: "I'm so unhappy that we won't get to see everything."

Fist-shaking guy: "Bunch of [a lot of really horrible words]!"

I tried to interview some politicians but got turned down at every building. They either weren't there, were busy or it was some building that looked important but was actually empty. In D.C. on Wednesday it was hard to tell.

Well, there you have it. America is in a real mess. But you'll never know that from politicians, who all blather in the news about how hard they're working but not getting anything done.

We need a real stalemate buster, something that would bust this thing loose. Something unusual and drastic. Like a beating.

I tried to visit the exact spot on the floor of the Senate where just that sort of thing occurred in 1856. Stymied by slavery and angry over pompous rhetoric, politicians resorted to blows.

On a nice spring day 156 years ago, Reps. Preston Brooks and Laurence M. Keitt, both extra-D from South Carolina, entered the Senate chamber and approached Sen. Charles Sumner, Radical R-Mass., working at his desk. They challenged him about a speech he had given.

While Keitt held other senators at bay with a pistol, Brooks beat Sumner to the point of death with a walking stick. Then they left. It was a definite deadlock breaker.

Historians consider the caning of Sumner to be one of the major sparks that ignited the Civil War, which didn't shut down the federal government but still managed to put 600,000 Americans out of work permanently. That's 15 million dead in today's Americans.

It took Sumner three years to recover. By then Brooks was dead from the croup and Keitt was a few years away from being killed at Cold Harbor while fighting for the right to own people.

With Washington all but closed, we went to another important congressional loggerhead breaker: the Battle of Ball's Bluff, 35 miles northwest of D.C. on the Potomac River. It was there in 1861 that another congressional first occurred.

While leading a Union regiment, Sen./Col. Edward D. Baker, D-Ore., was shot (a lot) and killed. He was the only sitting member of the Senate to be killed in the war.

Note: Baker is also known (though not very well) as the guy who in 1844 arrested the killers of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith when they attempted to flee justice (which wasn't meted out anyway).

At Ball's Bluff I realized what the answer was to the shutdown of the government. Congress should be accepting more of the risks. It shouldn't be just middle America losing its jobs, having its credit ratings savaged and telling their kids that they have to go without. Congress — the super health insured — ought to be in this boat with the rest of us.

A Civil War to break the deadlock today might be more problematic. Where would we choose up sides? Not only is the president black, but there's no Mason-Dixon line anymore.

I say we draw it between us and Congress. If we randomly hanged a couple from each party every day or so, not only would they know we're serious, we could end this rush to ruination while simultaneously putting the risk where it belongs.

Robert Kirby can be reached at or