The Speaker's Lobby: Universal Coverage
By: Chad Pergram, FOX News
13 June 2009
A big debate's raging in Congress these days about coverage. Administration officials and lawmakers are chattering everywhere about the marquee issue of the year.
"We're definitely looking at covering all Americans," said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) says that he's hoping for a plan "that covers everybody."
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) says he hopes the legislation "will result in all Americans getting covered."
While most health care interest groups and lawmakers are grappling with "universal coverage," at least one organization flooded Capitol Hill this week to make sure they had the right to be "uncovered."
"Nudist and I vote," declared the lapel pin of one lobbyist.
"Can there be anything more natural than going in the buff?" asked another.
"It's about body freedom and acceptance. You feel the sun and the wind and the water on your skin when you're nude" added a female lobbyist.
The American Association for Nude Recreation (AANR) bills itself as "the credible voice of reason for nude recreation since 1931." And a few of its 50,000 members donned ties, business suits and sports coats to roam the Capitol and meet with Members of Congress and give their staff the skinny about their cause.
And you thought people only lost their shirts because the economy was bad.
I wasn't quite sure what to expect when I dialed AANR's headquarters in Kissimmee, FL. Especially when an pre-recorded phone message asked "if you know your party's extension..."
But I finally caught up with the group briefly in the dining room at the Capitol Hill Club just behind the Cannon House Office Building. They lunched as House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) walked by to meet with Ohio GOP senatorial hopeful Rob Portman. Rep. John Campbell (R-CA) strolled past the nudists' table en route to the salad bar. Rep. Steve Austria (R-OH) dined one table over.
"Eventually when you come in and start talking to Congressional aides, skinny dipping comes up," says AANR Executive Director Erich Schuttauf (light, Indian grey suit with a striped tie). "They'll say 'yeah, I used to do that in college.' By then, you have somebody's ear. And a five-minute meeting turns into a 25-minute meeting."
Steve Hubbard (tweed jacket, maroon print tie) flew in from Bellingham, WA for the lobbying sessions. Sporting a few extra pounds, Hubbard notes that he and Schuttauf "no longer skinny dip. We 'chunky' dip."
Rene' Niquette (salmon-colored silk business suit) of St. Petersburg, FL, said that she was "more comfortable with my body as a woman" when she's naked. "People seem to accept me more," she added.
Ask anyone who works the front desk in a Congressional office, and they'll tell you dozens of organizations and lobbying groups drop off reams of material on a daily basis. Most of it finds its way to the circular file. But at least one Democratic aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity says that the nudists literature and handouts "is the most popular propaganda we get all year."
She noted that it gets passed around the office and then to friends working in other offices just down the hall.
"We just think it's pretty interesting," the aide said.
Somehow "casual Friday" on Capitol Hill wouldn't be the same.
One of the pamphlets is a list of clubs and facilities around the country where you can go au naturale. Some of the venues' state the naked truth about the type of recreation you'll find there, like the Nudist Clubhouse in San Diego or the Deer Park Nudist Resort in Devore, CA. Other clubs offer a play on words. There's the Black Hills Bares in Custer, SD and Healthy Hides in Houston. Still, the names of others are discreet. Try Whispering Pines in Ocean Isle Beach, NC or Bell Acres Resort in Maysville, GA.
The nudists also handed out temporary tattoos advocating people take a "nakation" and emery boards so your nails are buff.
All of the pamphlets and literature are rated G. One House member who wished not to be identified scanned through one brochure, featuring pictures of nudists, all taken from the neck up. Most looked like professional models.
"Why don't they look like that in real life?" he asked.
I asked another western House member if knew whether the group swung by his office.
"I don't know," he responded. "But if they did, I'm certain they 'swung by.'"
Hubbard says he rode a crowded elevator in a Congressional office building and watched as an aide tried to read his "Nudist and I Vote" pin. "(The aide) was trying so hard not to burst out laughing."
The group argues that it's important to lobby because some of their activities are legally-sanctioned on local state or federal public lands.
"We've been some places where there has been 40-years of established nude-use. And then you get a new ranger and that's it," says Hubbard.
Hubbard adds that the cause "isn't really a R versus D kind of issue."
On the day I met with the group, they planned to canvass the offices of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX). They also intended to present an award to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT). He authored a memorandum of law in the AANR's favor when he was a state's attorney in Vermont nearly 40 years ago. However, the group had to postpone the visit to Leahy's office. Just as they planned to arrive, the senator shocked Senate Republicans by abruptly taking to the Senate floor and announcing that confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor would start July 13.
It's unknown if Leahy rushed to the Senate chamber to make the announcement to avoid the nudists descending on his office.
"We're not high on his list right now," said AANR's Susan Weaver (black and white floral skirt and sweater) of Annandale, VA.
AANR's is quick to point out that nudity and politics is as old as the republic.
Benjamin Franklin was known for taking daily "air baths." President John Quincy Adams frequently skinny dipped in the Potomac. I guess that gives an entirely new meaning to the phrase "slippery politician."
In fact a reporter once confronted Adams in the river and held his clothes hostage until the president agreed to do an interview.
Too bad House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) doesn't go for a daily swim in the Potomac like Adams. Maybe some reporters could hold her clothes hostage to convince the Speaker to finally answer some more questions about her accusations that the CIA lied about interrogation methods.
In all, the group said that nude recreation is what one member described as a "great equalizer."
"You can't tell who's a senator or a trash collector" said Schuttauf.
As I left the Capitol Hill Club, I ran into Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) and told him a little bit about my meeting. Jordan, a family values conservative, wanted no part of the AANR.
"Whatever they're for, I'm against," Jordan snorted.
But responses like Jordan's can't stop the American Association for Nude Recreation lobbying efforts. Their appeals to Congressional offices are protected by the First Amendment. It prohibits bans on religion, the press, speech, and assembly. And of course, the First Amendment guarantees people the right "to petition the government for a 'redress' of grievances."
-Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He's won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill. The Speaker's Lobby is a long, ornate hallway behind the House chamber where lawmakers, aides and reporters often congregate during votes.