Douglas Hughes and Joe Lane share a lifelong fascination with flight, passionate outrage over the influence of organized money on the legislative process and — after Wednesday — the mutual experience of failing to get their concerns across to Capitol Hill in the way they intended.
"My guess is that people inside Congress don't want to be embarrassed by me delivering this letter. That's just my guess. And they're going to do everything they can to discourage me from trying," said Lane, who rode the train to D.C. from his home in Connecticut with 535 copies of the letter that Hughes tried to deliver via gyrocopter on April 15. He will return with zero, though the delivery did not go according to plan.
Since Hughes' initial attempt to deliver the two-page letter, a judge has ordered the Florida mailman to stay within the confines of the Tampa-area county where he lives. The letter decried the revolving door between Congress and K Street, the influence of rich donors and the relationship between corporate interests and members.
Lane, who was born and raised in Tampa, Fla., wanted to make sure Hughes' message reached its intended audience. Though Lane has been piloting planes since 1968, he opted to hand-deliver the letters.
"I didn't come here to get myself arrested. I came here to make a point and to get people talking about the message of the letter — not about security," he explained in an interview.
The 71-year-old arrived at Union Station before 8 a.m., canvas mail bag in tow, for his eight-hour day on Capitol Hill. About three minutes of his morning was spent at Capitol Police headquarters, where agents warned Lane the guards might not let him in with his letters. Police opted not to escort him, though two plainclothes officers shadowed him through the Senate and advised him against trying to distribute his letters in the House.
"Just as we were finishing up they said, 'We talked with the Sergeant-at-Arms of the House and they are not going to permit you in there with those letters,'" Lane said, pointing at the cops sitting at a nearby table in the Dirksen Cafeteria. He sat down for sushi around 12:45 p.m., his right knee and hip throbbing after three hours of walking through the halls. "They were very emphatic about it," he added.
Lane slipped 96 of the 100 envelopes he addressed to members of the Senate into the hands of their Washington staffers. Some smiled at the gray-haired man in khakis and black polo shirt. Others looked baffled by Lane, who worked up a light sweat beneath his black baseball cap as he hustled to complete his task. Most flipped over the white rectangle to make sure it was unsealed.
From the office of Senate Minority Leader Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., Lane learned that a bill related to campaign finance would be introduced. "I like it," Lane said after reading a summary of the legislation, and noting that Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., was among the 11 co-sponsors.
Visiting the office of Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., also struck Lane as a high point. He offered his services as a volunteer on the Vermonter's presidential campaign.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., would not accept any letters that had not been pre-screened by Capitol Police, his staffers told Lane. Lane, a former business consultant and golf coach could not find the offices of three freshman Republicans, so Mike Rounds of South Dakota, Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Dan Sullivan of Alaska, went without.
As for his 435 letters to the House, Lane said Wednesday he might submit them to the Congressional Acceptance Site where Capitol Police would screen the mail. Lane was reluctant to go that route, and dissed the rules that seem to make it easier for a lobbyist to get literature to a congressional office than a citizen activist. He chalked it up as one more challenge citizens have to taking on well-funded interest groups.
"The power of organized money is that they never rest, ever. They look at every single issue every single day," Lane said. Sometimes citizens can organize, he said, citing Mothers Against Drunk Driving and tobacco opponents. "MADD looked at one issue and they stayed with it, and stayed with it, and they won. The anti-smoking coalition had one issue and they stayed with it, and they stayed with it, and they won. From an organized money [group] … they can watch everything."
Lane said he and his wife, Barbara, were "radicalized" by the 2008 financial collapse. They followed the news from Zhaoqing city in Guangdong province, China, where they lived from 2006 to 2013. He rode a stationary bike for exercise, read "Winner-Take-All Politics" and other books on the root of the crisis "and the more I pedaled, the madder I got about it," Lane said.
Lane penned his novel, "Aftershock," after traveling across the country to interview people who were willing to talk the Great Recession. He wanted to write "a blood and guts book" with characters who spoke about their hardships. "When they're talking about what CBOs and credit default swaps and subprimes ... and buying influence ... that's real stuff. That's factual data pulled from a variety of sources."
In the end, interns from local advocacy groups helped Lane out. He scored one House-side meeting with Rep. Jim Himes, the Democrat who represents him in Congress. He left feeling energized by Himes' suggestion that he work to organize people from all 50 states to meet with their senators or representative to talk about campaign finance legislation.
Lane left the Hill in a cab around 4:30 p.m., vowing to "work with other advocacy groups to get this organizing started." His new goal is getting Congress "on the record."
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