SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) - Rep. Lou Lang wanted answers. Standing on the floor of the Illinois House, he grilled a freshman colleague about her legislation and exactly what burdens it would place on the state’s residents.
“Am I required to perform mouth-to-mouth on that dead skunk?” Lang demanded.
Lang’s question wasn’t serious (and the answer, of course, was no). The bill was the freshman’s first piece of legislation to come up for a vote, and Lang was gleefully engaging in a tradition of hazing rookies.
For 15 and 30 minutes at a time, rookies presenting their first bills have to stand before an entire legislative chamber and calmly respond to ridiculous questions and dark insinuations about their honesty and motives.
Rep. Norine Hammond, for instance, popped up with legislation letting people collect roadkill - for food or for fur -under some circumstances. Her new colleagues hit Hammond with every conceivable question about how the law would work, including Lang’s about what to do if a critter isn’t quite dead.
Hammond said the hazing was all in good fun. But she admitted to a little concern about defending her roadkill measure against the onslaught.
“When I realized that that was actually going to be my first bill, I had to brace myself for that,” said the Macomb Republican.
Her legislation passed easily, as virtually every lawmaker’s first bill does. Rookies rarely start out with contentious legislation that might be rejected.
With 29 freshmen joining the state Legislature since 2010, senior lawmakers have had plenty of targets for the camaraderie-building, skin-thickening experience. Hammond said a constituent who observed her roadkill ribbing contacted her, concerned about what gets accomplished in the Statehouse. Hammond plans to write back and assure the constituent that the tradition does not detract from important work in Springfield.
The hazing - which occurs in the Senate but is far more common in the House - is designed to create headaches for freshmen lawmakers.
Lang (D-Skokie), said it provides a valuable lesson on how to stand one’s ground, make a point and clearly defend a position and bill.
Hammond’s bill, for example, allows a person with a proper hunting permit to pick up in-season, fur-bearing mammals killed by a vehicle on a roadway. In responding to Lang, she noted how some state residents hunt raccoons and other creatures for pelts or meals. A pretty harmless matter - apart from the dead creature, of course – but one that invited much attention.
Lang said the hazing tradition also is a way to foster good will in an institution that often divides along party lines, he said.
“You can predict the votes of some people in this chamber, freshmen and non-freshmen, just by reading the title of the bill on the board,” Lang said. “After a freshman passes their first bill, after having gone through (hazing), most people on both sides of the aisle go up to that person, shake their hand, congratulate them.”
Of course, there’s also abuse just for the sake of abuse. Veteran legislators have started forcing the rookies to wear a red jacket during the debates - a jacket so red that even the Revolutionary-era British Army would have considered it too loud.
“When I was first made aware of the tradition I was resistant,” said Rep. Daniel Biss, D-Evanston. “But by the time we had gotten to my actual first bill I had resigned myself entirely.”
“I’m sure it was more fun for everyone else in the chamber than it was for me,” Biss said. “But that’s the point.”
Rep. Roger Eddy, R-Hutsonville, said the red jacket routine started last year with Rep. Anthony DeLuca, D-Chicago Heights. Eddy said a colleague was wearing a red coat with leopard print on the inside and a long tail in back. He borrowed her jacket and claimed that wearing it was a time-honored tradition.
He succeeded in tricking DeLuca into becoming a human stop sign.
Eddy thinks the jacket may become a permanent part of the hazing.
“Now that we had 17 more people who had that treatment, I think they’re going to make sure they have that treatment for everybody,” Eddy said.
Legislators agreed that anyone dropping in for a quick visit during hazing might get the wrong impression. But they said it’s essential to have brief moments to laugh amid the more serious – and often dull - work they do.
Take, for example, Rep. Chris Nybo’s first bill, which removed a word while adding three words and a comma to a highly technical piece of legislation. Legislators spent 20 minutes on it – averaging four minutes for each change in the bill.
Nybo apologized for giving his colleagues such a dull first bill.
“I’m sorry, representative, that you have to be subjected to this,” the Elmhurst Republican said to Rep. Will Davis, D Chicago.
“No, I’m sorry you have to be subjected to this,” Davis responded.
Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press