On the fringe then; now, one of the gang

When I covered Congress in the mid-1990s, one of my favorite characters was Steve Stockman, a former street vagrant who somehow got swept to power in the Republican Revolution of '94.

Voters in his Texas district, realizing their mistake, swept him out two years later — but not before he distinguished himself by demanding a federal investigation of the 1948 Kinsey Report on male sexuality and by claiming that the deadly 1993 assault on the Branch Davidians was a Clinton administration conspiracy to tighten gun control.

So it was with a mix of nostalgia and delight that I came across a headline on the news website Talking Points Memo this week proclaiming, "GOP Rep. Threatens Impeachment If Obama Uses Executive Order on Guns." It turns out that congressman is ... Steve Stockman. Sixteen years and one failed run for railroad commissioner later, he's back in the halls of Congress.

But there is a key difference in Stockman's second act, and it says less about him than about our politics. Back then, he proved too much even for the '94 revolutionaries; his classmates came to shun him and voters in his competitive district sent him packing. But this time, Texas has redrawn its political boundaries, and Stockman's new seat is safe. What's more, his views, outlandish in the House of 1995, are more at home in the House of 2013. On Tuesday night, Stockman was one of 179 House Republicans to vote against aid to Hurricane Sandy's victims.

All these years later, Stockman can still bring the crazy. The problem is he's now just one of many purveyors.

In his first few days back, Stockman has picked up where he left off. In addition to his threat to seek impeachment of President Barack Obama if he issues executive orders on guns, he voted "present" rather than cast his ballot to elect John Boehner speaker, complaining that the Republican leader cooperated with "a liberal White House that has outmaneuvered him at every turn." He also introduced legislation that would end gun-free zones around schools.

By his own account, Stockman spent time homeless as a young man, sleeping in a Fort Worth park, looking for food in trash cans, and going by the street name "Max." He has been jailed more than once, he has said in interviews, and was charged with a felony after one such incident when authorities found Valium in his pants; he said a girlfriend put the pills there, and the charge was later reduced.

Soon after his out-of-nowhere victory in '94, and a few weeks before the Oklahoma City bombing, he wrote to Attorney General Janet Reno about a fanciful raid on a militia group he thought the feds were planning — saying that "reliable sources" had informed him "a paramilitary-style attack against Americans" would occur at 4 a.m. on either March 25 or 26. The paranoia continued when he wrote in Guns & Ammo that the federal government "executed" the Branch Davidians because "they owned guns that the government did not wish them to have" and so the Clinton administration could "prove the need for a ban on so-called 'assault weapons.' "

In his brief but glorious term, Stockman established daily prayer meetings in his office and tangled with the Anti-Defamation League for speaking on a radio program of a group that the ADL called anti-Semitic. Midway through his term, he launched an effort to investigate the first Kinsey Report and to cut off federal funding for sex-education programs that might be based on the landmark study.

Now back in office, Stockman has hit the ground running. Again working with the Gun Owners of America, a group that makes the National Rifle Association seem moderate by comparison, he introduced the "Safe Schools Act" that would repeal federal laws banning guns from school zones. "The time has come to end the deadly experiment of disarming peaceable, law-abiding citizens near schools," he said in a letter to colleagues.

And, a week into his new term, now comes the impeachment threat. Stockman said Obama's plan to issue executive orders as part of his gun-violence package is "an unconstitutional and unconscionable attack on the very founding principles of this republic." If Obama can do this, he said, "our free republic has effectively ceased to exist." In the news release accompanying his threat, he attached an image of a cannon and the words "come and take it."

Yes, that's the same Stockman I found so entertaining back in the '90s. What's frightening is he no longer sounds like an outlier.

Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist. Email him at danamilbank@washpost.com.


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