13 surprising ways sci-fi collided with DC politics

Contributed by
Default contributor image
Dave Maass
Dec 14, 2012

Now that the 112th Congress is in session, Republicans control the House, while Democrats hold the Senate and the White House, which means we're in for two years of trench warfare over just about every policy, from taxes to immigration. But if there's one thing that transcends party lines in Washington, D.C.—it's sci-fi.

Where else could progressive Democrat Rep. Jared Polis and staunch Republican Rep. Darrell Issa ever hope to find common ground but in their mutual love of Star Trek? They could hang out together at trade policy hearings to catch Rep. Brad Sherman making obscure comparisons between the European Union and the Ferengi Alliance. Meanwhile, over in the Senate, Sen. John McCain would be likening the national deficit to the Incredible Hulk.

Give it 30 more years and we'll call it Congress-Con.

Is it that the pop-culture rhetoric resonates with voters? Or is that the geeks have their own secret caucus? Whatever the case, we present this list of occasions where sci-fi, like an asteroid discussed in the House Science Committee, collided with contemporary D.C. politics.


1. Reagan's Star Wars


To this day, satellite defense systems are often mocked by some politicians as "Star Wars" programs; most recently in Rep. Pete Defazio and Rep. Pete Stark's call for further cutting of the missile defense budget.

According to the historical office within the U.S. Army, the term originated with Sen. Ted Kennedy, a Democrat for Massachusetts, who used it to deride President Ronald Reagan the morning after Reagan announced his Strategic Defense Initiative, which called for ground- and space-based antiballistic missile systems. Eventually, the term rose to the level of a Cold War national-security threat, at least in the opinion of the chief scientist in charge of the program within the U.S. Department of Defense.

The name 'Star Wars' is probably the most damaging thing that has ever happened to the program. It conveys the wrong impression, and has been an important tool for Soviet disinformation.

That, of course, was the bummer of the decade to the children of the 1980s: Worse than discovering Santa Claus was really Uncle Pete in glued-on beard was the rude awakening that the "Star Wars" program had nothing to do with X-wings.


2. The Enron Hearings


During the investigation into the collapse of the energy mega-corporation Enron, it was revealed that executives had come up with a naming system for their financial subsidiaries based on Star Wars: JEDI, Chewco Investments, Kenobe Inc. and Obi-1 Holdings.

That just opened up the floodgates for members of Congress, particularly Rep. Greg Ganske, a Republican from Iowa. During a February 2002 Energy Committee hearing, Ganske delivered what may be the geekiest three-minute opening statement in congressional history.

Mr. Ganske: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I'll be brief. Mr. Chairman, I am a Star Wars fan, a story about the triumph of good over evil. So I think it was sort of hypocritical when Enron subsidiaries had names out of Star Warslike Jedi and Chewco. Well, Mr. Chairman, today Mr. Ken Lay is looking like Darth Vader and Enron like the Death Star to investors and all those company employees who have had their pensions evaporated. The auditor should have been the real Jedi, policing evil doings. Instead, it appears like they were the bounty hunter, Boba Fett, doing the bidding of the evil empire. Mr. Chairman, let us use our lightsabers to cut to the quick of this galactic scandal. May we have the wisdom of Yoda to fix whatever accounting and pension laws needs strengthening in order to protect the innocent, punish the greedy and prevent clone wars in other companies like we've seen in Enron. I yield back, Mr. Chairman.

Chairman Tauzin: May the force be with you.


And pundits complained that it was a mockery when Stephen Colbert testified before a congressional committee and tried to enter his colonoscopy into the official record. ...


3. Sci-fi testify!


From LeVar Burton to Harrison Ford, sci-fi legends are often called to speak on issues before Congress.

Among the best was George Lucas' 2008 testimony on how to provide Internet and other telecommunications services to rural and impoverished areas of the country. It's an issue he's been discussing with Congress members since at least 1993.

Battlestar Galactica's Ronald Moore also made a notable appearance before a House committee to argue for net neutrality and congressional scrutiny on cable providers' practice of "bundling" channels. He even commented on the proposed merger of NBC Universal with Comcast:

From Paramount to HBO to NBC Universal where Caprica is being shot this very day, I have found success in the corporate structure. These companies are not evil. They are not populated by modern-day robber barons intent on stealing the bread from my children's mouths. These companies are only doing what makes sense to them financially ... By setting up a regulatory environment in which there are no barriers to continual corporate consolidation and huge incentives to both centralize power and squeeze out smaller players, even good and decent people will participate in and promote a system that ends of weakening competition, monopolizing power and corrupting the free flow of ideas and opportunities for all. The danger we face is not that we work for bad men and women, it is that good men and women can produce bad results in the absence of a law.



4. House Committee on Science


Even the official document outlining the 50-year history of the House Committee on Science has to rely on science fiction: Soylent Green played a vital role in the committee taking up the issue of the "Green House Effect."

That aside, the committee and its various subcommittees have gradually become the nerdiest chambers of Congress (in 2002, one subcommittee chairman changed the symbolic "trapdoor" that ejects speakers who go over their 5-minute limit to a Star Trek transporter).

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican from California, has probably had the greatest geekiest impact on the science committee. Leading hearings on space travel and extraterrestrials, he has regularly opened the sessions with tributes to science fiction masters Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein, waxed on about his love for the films The Day the Earth Stood Still and Independence Day and compared guests to Star Wars characters.

His committees have featured presentations from Lawrence Krauss on "The Physics of Star Trek" and scientist Neil DeGrasse Tyson's rant on the dumbest aliens in science fiction television and film.

Perhaps one of the best lines came from New York Democrat Anthony Weiner, who during a hearing on "The Threat of Near Earth Asteroids" in 2002 declared he wanted his money back after watching Armageddon.


5. Sen. Patrick Leahy: "We're not intimidated by thugs!"


It doesn't get any better than a sitting Senator volunteering for a brutal role in a comic-book blockbuster. Sen Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont and huge Batman fan, had previously provided a voice-over for Batman the Animated Series on television as the governor of Utah. Here he is standing up to Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight.

And here he is explaining the role, his inspiration and how his residuals go to children's charity on C-Span during what was supposed to be a lecture on the priorities of the Judiciary Committee:


6. The Robo C.O.P. Act


At the beginning of every term, Rep. Virginia Foxx, a Republican representing North Carolina's 5th congressional district, introduces a bill named after the brutal cyborg police officer from the Paul Verhoeven franchise RoboCop. The Robo Calls Off Phones Act (as it is currently named) would add "politically-oriented recorded message telephone calls" to the list of calls that can't be made to people who submit their numbers to the Federal Trade Commission's National Do Not Call Registry. According to the original press announcement from 2005:

Bill Adheres to RoboCop's Prime Directives: Serve the public trust, protect the innocent, uphold the law

In this case, the innocent is Foxx herself, who says that her opponents have been harassing her constituents with annoying robocalls that make it seem like Foxx is the one behind them. The bill died in committee, but also like RoboCop, the bill has been resurrected for two more unimpressive sequels. It is currently named HR 116.


7. Darth Vader at the Washington National Cathedral


The Washington National Cathedral is one of the central points of faith in politics, hosting regular discussions with congressmen and serving as the location for the recent funeral services for presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford. (It's also #5 on Rep. Steve Austria's Top 10 Sites To Visit While in D.C.). You can also add that to your itinerary for D.C. Comic Con: The cathedral also has one of the coolest Darth Vader busts in the world.

The story goes: In the 1980s there was a children's sculpture competition for one of the
cathedral's "grotesques," which are like gargoyles, except they're designed to channel water away from the building by bouncing it off their heads. Vader shares his nook near the very top of the cathedral with other winners (a pig-tailer girl and a raccoon), so bring your Zuckuss binoculars. (Click here for a map)


8. Isaac Asimov Week


Well, actually 2010's H.R. 1055 is a bill with 17 sponsors naming April 9-17 "National Robotics Week." The bill, however, specifically sets out to honor the acclaimed author:

Whereas the second week in April each year is designated as `National Robotics Week', recognizing the accomplishments of Isaac Asimov, who immigrated to America, taught science, wrote science books for children and adults, first used the term robotics, developed the Three Laws of Robotics, and died in April, 1992...


9. Return of the STDs

It's kind of unbelievable and in a way totally awesome: Sen. Tom Coburn, a fairly controversial Republican, rolls out a presentation on sexually transmitted diseases called "Revenge of the STDs." According to the Washington Post:

Coburn, a conservative, Bible-quoting Republican from Oklahoma, tried his best to put the newbies at ease; his staffers called the lecture "Revenge of the STDs" after the "Star Wars" movie, gave out fliers featuring Yoda and C-3PO saying "Oh, how dreadful!" and played campy horror music from "The Phantom Menace" as people filed in. In the back they served pizza and sodas.

Sex shall you not have if transmit HPV you will?


10. Global Warming


If you're searching for "science fiction" in the Congressional Record, most results point to congressmen attacking climate-change theory as science fiction.

Obama even addressed the charge directly at the Copenhagen Summit in 2009. In the opening of his speech he declared: "This is not fiction, this is science."

Even Darth Vader made an appearance in official Energy & Commerce Committee reports on Copenhagen.


11. The Mos Eisley dance


Without comment, we present White House spokesman Robert Gibbs during a press briefing:




12. Klingons in the White House


In 2007, Rep. David Wu, a Democrat from Oregon, tells the American people this about George W. Bush adminitration: "These aren't Vulcans! There are Klingons in the White House!"


13. Jeri Ryan/Jack Ryan divorce


In 2004, many Trekkies tuned in closely to election politics when the divorce records between Jeri Ryan (Seven of Nine from Star Trek Voyager) and Jack Ryan (Illinois' Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate) were made public. A media frenzy ensued as the documents revealed

Ryan withdrew from the Senate race, leaving Democrat Barack Obama to cruise to victory with 70 percent of the vote. The rest is history.