WASHINGTON, DC—Congress narrowly passed the McCann-Hawkins Florida Wetlands Preservation Bill Tuesday, with the deciding vote coming from an unlikely source: Sen. Dwight Q. Peabody (D-RI), the Littlest Senator.
Despite his diminutive stature and timid demeanor, Peabody became the most important legislator of all when the vote became deadlocked at 49-49. With Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) absent, the fate of countless species of Everglades flora and fauna fell into the teeny, tiny hands of Peabody.
Ever since he was sworn into Congress in January, Peabody, who represents the nation's littlest state, has not been taken seriously by his Senate colleagues, many of whom are big, important politicians from big, important states like Texas and California. When Peabody arrived at the U.S. Capitol for the first time, the bigger senators took one look at him and laughed.
"That's a senator?" Sen. Phil Gramm (R-TX) said. "Why, he could get lost in my shirt pocket! What a pipsqueak!"
"I can't see how he could possibly influence legislation," Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) said. "One thing's for certain: We won't let him join in any Senate games."
Peabody's small size, coupled with his lack of seniority, prevented him from being appointed to any important subcommittees, so on the days Congress was in session, he could be found in the very back of the Senate chamber, sitting all alone at his little desk, writing notes on his copy of the Biennial Budgeting & Appropriations Act using a hummingbird quill and a thimble for an inkwell.
"Peabody's impact on the Senate had been negligible," CNN political analyst Mark Shields said. "When he would try to go to the floor to offer his opinion on the Financial Regulatory Relief & Economic Efficiency Act of 1999, he found that the big, mean senators would block his way, and he'd have to return to his little seat. And the only legislation he's authored, S1156, the Letting Small People Have Their Say Act, was laughed right out of committee. Needless to say, this made the Littlest Senator very, very sad."
The Littlest Senator's situation, however, began to improve one sunny day in May, when the House of Representatives passed the McCann-Hawkins Bill. Peabody liked the bill, which would allocate $377.5 million for the conservation and restoration of more than 400,000 acres of Florida wetlands, preserving the size of the nation's wetlands resource base and protecting the habitat of the Littlest Senator's only friends, the puddle ducks.
But Peabody knew that many big, mean senators disliked the bill, because it would set limits on industrial and commercial development in the Everglades region. If he voted for the bill, the big senators would surely point their fingers at him and call him names.
"The night before the vote, I stayed up a long, long time thinking," Peabody told reporters. "Then, I put on my little nightcap spun from gossamer, blew out my little candle, and went to sleep."
"Not long afterwards," he continued, "I was stirred awake by a little voice in my ear. When I opened my eyes, I couldn't believe what I saw: It was a little mouse dressed in a top hat and bow tie! Imagine my surprise when he opened his little mouth and said, 'Don't be afraid! I'm your friend! And I believe in you.'"
The Littlest Senator initially thought he was dreaming, but the little mouse, still unidentified as of press time, assured Peabody he was real.
"The mouse said he was able to talk because I believed in him, and if I believed in myself, I'd have the courage to do anything I wanted," he said. "I told him that with all the big senators teasing me, I couldn't do anything right."
"But then the mouse told me something I hadn't considered," he said. "He told me that the people of the great state of Rhode Island believed in me enough to elect me, so I must've done something right. And he said anyone who follows his heart can't go wrong."
Feeling as though a great burden had been lifted from him, Peabody practically skipped to the Senate chamber the next morning, eager to show the big, mean senators that he meant business.
But when the vote emerged dead even, the Littlest Senator, who was always last on the roll call, found that the deciding vote had fallen to him.
"In that moment, all of my courage fell away, and I suddenly felt very, very nervous," Peabody said. "If I voted against the bill, I would be letting down my duck friends. But if I voted for it, the big senators would be very cross with me. What was I to do?"
Then, Peabody said, he remembered what his friend the mouse had told him: Anyone who follows his heart can't go wrong. So in a loud, clear, bell-like voice, Peabody declared his vote: Yes! Yes! Yes for the McCann-Hawkins Florida Wetlands Preservation Bill!
When the bill was passed, all the conservation-minded senators cheered and lifted Peabody high into the air.
"It was then that the Littlest Senator realized he did matter after all," said Roger Feuerstein, a senior advisor at the Brookings Institute, a D.C.-based think tank. "In fact, he mattered the most!"
But when Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS), the biggest senator of all, approached Peabody after the vote, Peabody became nervous again, cringing as Lott's shadow fell over him. A big smile, however, came across the Littlest Senator's face when he saw that Lott only wanted to shake his tiny hand.
"Although I did oppose the McCann-Hawkins Bill, I congratulate you, Littlest Senator, for standing up for what you believed was right," Lott said. "And on behalf of all the big senators, I wish to apologize for our past treatment of you. For today in Congress, we learned one and all: A senator is a senator, no matter how small or how tall—or skinny or shaped like a big, round, fat ball."
Other big senators were eager to befriend Peabody, as well. Sen. Wayne Allard (R-CO) invited the Littlest Senator to join him on a fact-finding tour of the Chiapas region of Mexico. And Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) said he would recommend him to fill an opening on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
This made Peabody very, very happy. And that night, as he put on his little nightcap, blew out his little candle, and climbed into his little bed, the Littlest Senator fell into the most peaceful slumber he'd had since coming to Washington. Because now he knew that sometimes the littlest people can make the biggest difference.