WASHINGTON, DC—The future of the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration is in question following Tuesday's death of a freshman senator in what authorities believe to be a hazing incident.
Sen. Thomas Pruitt (R-RI), 38, sworn into the 106th Congress on Jan. 7, was admitted to George Washington University Hospital at 2:20 a.m. and pronounced dead soon after. An autopsy found toxic levels of alcohol in the congressional pledge's system, and attending physicians found numerous bruises and welts on his back and buttocks.
Sen. John Warner (R-VA), Pruitt's designated "big brother" during Committee Rush, is reportedly under investigation for negligence in connection with the death, though no formal charges have yet been filed.
Pruitt's death is only the latest in a string of hazing incidents to plague Congress in recent years. During January 1995's Capitol Hell Week, incoming Rep. Gerard Schuman (D-NM) fell out of a fourth-floor Capitol Building window to his death. An autopsy found Schuman's blood-alcohol content to be four times the legal level of intoxication, a condition widely believed to be the result of a hazing incident in which for six hours he was forced to drink a shot of vodka every time he failed to correctly answer a question about Robert's Rules Of Order. In 1997, a Capitol janitor found first-term Sen. Mike Dewine (R-OH) passed out in the building's boiler room, wearing only his underwear and covered in peanut butter and feathers.
The latest fatality is regarded by Beltway insiders as a grave blow to the already embattled Republican Party, coming so soon after the twin resignations of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who stepped down over the scandal resulting from his forcing House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-MO) to drink a gallon of Crisco Oil, and incoming Speaker Bob Livingston (R-LA), who quit last month amid sexual-misconduct allegations surrounding a midnight panty raid on the Capitol's Congresswomen's Suite.
Only a few legislators were willing to comment publicly on Pruitt's death.
"The freshmen keep getting hazed, but they're afraid to press charges or even speak out about it," Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) told reporters. "I remember a few years ago, there was a new representative named Sam Haskell who was forced to masturbate onto a piece of bread and then eat it. He was one of the few who went public with his hazing, and, from that day on, he was treated like a total pariah by fellow legislators. Every bill he ever proposed died in committee."
"Rules and Administration is notorious for its hazings," said one longtime senator, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Sen. Michael Enzi (R-WY) had to swim across the Potomac at midnight with a lit candle in his ass. A freshman from Georgia had all of his toes broken. The list goes on. But what are you going to do about it? If you rock the boat, the party leaders can make it a very long six years for you."
Though Pruitt's death is the first for Rules and Administration, it is not the first time the powerful senate committee has stirred controversy. During Hell Week 1995, Congressional Black Caucus leaders formally protested a "mock slave auction" held by the committee.
Outraged by the latest death, constituents across the U.S. are calling for stricter anti-hazing laws for Congress.
"It's time to put a stop to this hazing," said Jim Campos of Kirkland, WA. There are better ways to show one's loyalty to his subcommittee."
Lucille Thalaker of Tallahassee, FL, agreed. "Why should I even bother to vote if the person I elect may not even live to see their first House referendum?"
"Clearly, what happened to Sen. Pruitt went beyond the relatively innocuous committee-initiation stunts like the old 'Freedonian Aid Bill' prank, in which they get some unsuspecting frosh to pledge $675 million in aid to a non-existent country," said freshman Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), holding the watermelon she must take with her everywhere she goes for the next three weeks. "The truly extreme hazing has got to stop."
Still, some observers defended Congress' long-standing first-semester traditions.
"If they cracked down on every committee that just wanted to have a little fun with the new legislators, you'd lose great, harmless stuff like the time Patrick Moynihan streaked through the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations' debate on Chinese human-rights abuses," said noted political scholar Dr. James Throckmorton. "When you compare the stuff happening today to hazings in the past, the modern era absolutely pales. I mean, for his initiation, Strom Thurmond was required to bare-knuckle box a doughty Irish longshoreman for 30 rounds."
But whatever reforms, if any, are made, they will come too late for Sen. Pruitt.
"All Tom ever wanted to do was lower the capital-gains tax, reduce the trade deficit, and play quarterback in the Senate Mud Bowl," said Lincoln Almond, Rhode Island's governor and a good friend of Pruitt's. "Now that can never be."