Does Chocolate Milk Come From Brown Cows? No, seriously

After a spate of politicians' resignations, there has been a lot of rhetoric recently from members of Congress about needing to hold their colleagues to a "higher standard" than other citizens.

That's rich..

In fact, far from a higher standard, we continue to elect and e-elect scoundrels, liars and the intellectually challenged. The elusive quality of "electability" seems not to correlate with truthfulness, integrity, courage or intelligence, but only with a certain affability – and with the ability to raise campaign funds.

Having cast their votes at the ballot box, the vast majority of Americans are unhappy with their choices. The most recent Gallup poll found approval of Congress at a dismal 16 percent.

Who knows where it is headed in the wake of the many recent resignations from the House and Senate and the furor over accused sexual harasser and child molester Roy Moore refusing to withdraw from the Alabama Senate race.

Although it is moral turpitude that has been prominent lately, there are other severe defects in our politicians. It's no coincidence that the intelligence of members of Congress has so often been spoofed.

"Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself," quipped Mark Twain.

Milton Berle observed, "You can lead a man to Congress, but you can't make him think."

Will Rogers addressed the consequences of these deficiencies: "When Congress makes a joke it's a law, and when they make a law, it's a joke."

There are numerous examples of the joke being on us. A friend of mine was seated at a banquet table with the family of then-Rep. Dan Glickman (D-Kansas). The family expressed relief at his having entered politics because none of them thought Dan was smart enough to enter the family business. (Automobile and appliance shredding and scrap metal.)

Former U.S. Congressman John Salazar (D-Col.) related this anecdote: "When I was debating what became the 2008 Farm Bill, 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."

How now brown cow? A cow in the In the Abondance valley in the Haute-Savoie, France, 30 kilometres to the south of Lake Geneva and on the threshold of the Portes du Soleil. public domain

That's in the same category as the concern of Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) that stationing 8,000 U.S. military personnel on Guam would cause the small island to "become so overly populated that it will tip over and capsize."

Currently serving Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tx.) once proclaimed that the U.S. Constitution is 400 years old.

And a member of the House Science Committee, during a visit to the California Institute of Technology's Jet Propulsion Lab, asked a NASA scientist whether the Mars 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 on Mars. No manned spacecraft has visited Mars.

I attended a conference at which Rep. Tom Bliley (R-Va.), then chairman of the powerful House Commerce Committee, spoke by teleconference. As he recited from a prepared statement, he included the "stage instructions" – such as "pause for emphasis" – that had been inserted by his speechwriter. And where one line had been inadvertently duplicated, Bliley read it a second time.

Carelessness? Stupidity? Intoxication? Senility?

Don't voters have a right to know?

Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), was sufficiently forthright to reveal in 2007 that he had been diagnosed with frontotemporal lobar degeneration – an inexorably progressive, incurable disease characterized by the wasting away of the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain. Because of the behavioral changes and dementia that accompany this condition, Domenici announced that he would not seek reelection the following year.

I had great sympathy for Mr. Domenici, but should the people of New Mexico have been represented for another year by a senator who admitted to suffering from progressive dementia? I believe he should have resigned at the time his illness was diagnosed.

And then there was nonagenarian Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), the longest-serving senator in American history. In his 51st year in the Senate, the 90-year-old's public utterances – as viewable on YouTube – spoke for themselves.

In one clip, Sen. Byrd maundered; in the second, during a 2001 interview on Fox News Sunday, this former recruiter for the Ku Klux Klan was grossly inappropriate, several times using the term "white niggers."

As a voter and taxpayer, but also as a physician, I worry about whether such people were, or are, fit to serve. Perhaps we should treat dissatisfaction with our representation as a medical, rather than a solely political, issue.

How? By asking candidates and incumbents to volunteer for periodic intelligence and mental status testing. (And of course, I would include the president and vice-president.) After all, we often demand to know whether a candidate has recovered from open-heart surgery, cancer or a stroke, and many states require elderly drivers to be relicensed.

A mental status exam by an expert offers an assessment of cognitive abilities, memory and quality of 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, ability to perform simple calculations, 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 abstractly ("A stitch in time saves nine.").

An intelligence test measures various parameters that are thought to correlate with academic or financial achievement. Every politician need not be a genius, but I'd like the ones who represent me to be smarter than the average person in the supermarket or laundromat.

The journalist and satirist H.L. Mencken observed, "Congress consists of one-third, more or less, scoundrels; two-thirds, more or less, idiots; and three-thirds, more or less, poltroons."

Testing might help us to weed out a few idiots. Getting rid of the scoundrels and poltroons will have to wait.
Henry Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

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