When someone threatens the life of the President of the United States, the Secret Service reaction is usually swift and severe: casually joke in front of an agent about taking a shot at the President, and you'll wind up in jail quicker than you can say Go. When members of Congress are threatened, by contrast, the response typically is not nearly as intense. Threats can languish in the clogged voice-mail inboxes of any number of staffers dispersed across many offices in different parts of the country. Capitol police must work backward to reconstruct caller-ID records, usually in coordination with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and local authorities. And the offenders often turn out to simply be irritated voters, angry over this bill or that congressional resolution; a rap on the knuckles has often been considered sufficient punishment.
That is, until recently. This year's divisive debate over health care reform, and the ultimate passing of a bill, seems to have brought out far more serious threats and a more serious response from law enforcement. Telephone and e-mail threats have escalated to vandalized gas lines, envelopes containing mysterious white powder, bricks thrown through windows and threats of sniper fire against children and grandchildren. Earlier this week, a man was arrested for making death threats against Senator Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat. Soon afterward, a California man was arrested for doing the same thing to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. "The uptick in threats I noticed it in the December time frame, and it's been steady since then," says Terrance Gainer, the Senate's sergeant-at-arms, who oversees security for the nation's 100 Senators.
Gainer says that since November, 11 Senators have received 17 threats that are being investigated, including the one against Murray. On the House side, there have been threats against nearly a dozen members prompting Capitol police to hold a meeting with the Democratic caucus before Easter recess to encourage members to be vigilant and immediately report any suspicious activity. Local authorities are monitoring those who have been menaced as the police and FBI try to track down the perpetrators.
The most recent attacks come as Congress, according to a Gallup poll, has sunk to its lowest approval rating since August 2008. Just 16% of Americans approved of the job Congress was doing last month, with 80% disapproving. And while they have mostly been aimed at Democrats who voted in favor of health care, threats have been made against at least one Republican, Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia. Last week a man was arrested in Philadelphia for making Internet video threats against Cantor and his wife, seemingly because of their Jewish faith.
Passage of a large piece of legislation that affects millions of lives is never without controversy. The Civil Rights Act resulted in brawls on the Senate floor and death threats against a number of Senators, including Robert F. Kennedy. The 1965 creation of Medicare and Medicaid tied up courts for decades with legal challenges from states. And Republicans called for the repeal of Social Security from its inception in 1935 under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt until Dwight D. Eisenhower's declaration of a cease-fire in the 1950s.
Adding to the current ugliness are accusations from some Democrats that the violence has been incited by the angry rhetoric of Republicans and antigovernment Tea Party activists, who cheered protesters inside the House chamber on the evening the health care bill was passed. Just after the vote, the Republican National Committee launched a "Fire Nancy Pelosi" website that showed her roasting in the flames of hell; the fundraising effort raised more than $1 million in 48 hours. Representative Steve Driehaus, an Ohio Democrat, took exception when House minority leader John Boehner, a fellow Ohioan, said Driehaus "may be a dead man" after he voted for the bill. Driehaus later reported receiving death threats. Boehner's staff said his remark had not been meant to be taken literally, and Boehner issued an e-mailed statement condemning any violence.
Not to be outdone, Republicans have accused Democrats of trying to profit politically by playing the victim. Cantor held a press conference before recess, during which he accused Dems of "fanning the flames" by trying to use the threats as a "political weapon." And certainly Democrats haven't been shy about raising funds from the other side's ugly moments, like when Tea Party protesters hurled racial epithets against civil-rights legend Representative John Lewis, spat at other African-American members and called Representative Barney Frank, one of a handful of openly gay Congressmen, a "f_____." "Members have had death threats," read a fundraising missive from Mitch Stewart, the head of Organizing for America, an offshoot of President Obama's campaign website. "Democratic offices have been vandalized. Please chip in $5 or more to defend health reform and those in Congress who fought to make it possible." Though both parties saw significant fundraising bumps from the passage of the bill, the Democratic National Committee raised $2 million more than its GOP counterpart.