Congressman's island-capsizing query goes viral

Rep. Hank Johnson, a Georgia Democrat, asked if adding a few thousand people to Guam would make the island "become so overly populated that it will tip over and capsize." And then the video appeared online.

Only a few years ago, a member of Congress serving up an inane comment in a congressional hearing would have merited a brief gossip column mention, or more likely gone unnoticed.

Unfortunately for Rep. Hank Johnson, a Georgia Democrat, his bizarre question about the island of Guam possibly tipping over--he used the word "capsize"--if additional troops were stationed there became a YouTube sensation on Thursday.

It's no April Fools' Day joke: the 55-year-old congressman and member of the House Democratic leadership told a naval officer who was testifying on March 25 that: "My fear is that the whole island will become so overly populated that it will tip over and capsize."

For emphasis, Johnson leaned to his left and added hand motions suggesting a large vessel tipping into the sea.

Admiral Robert Willard, the head of U.S. Pacific Command who was testifying, paused briefly and offered a deadpan response: "We don't anticipate that. The Guam population, I think, currently about 175,000 and, again, with 8,000 Marines and their families, it's an addition of about 25,000 more into the population." Williard did add, helpfully, a moment later that Guam is part of the United States.

It took a few days for the video to surface, but once it did on Thursday, it did with a vengeance. National Review quipped: "Presumably, when you're the head guy of a major fleet for a big-time navy, you've got plenty of other ways of filling your time other than reassuring congressmen on whether miscellaneous land masses are likely to tip over and sink." Conservative bloggers Michelle Malkin and at RedState.com chimed in, as did The Hill newspaper and the Los Angeles Times.

Johnson's office published a statement on Thursday saying its boss' statement was "an obviously metaphorical reference." (Johnson succeeded Democratic Rep. Cynthia McKinney, known for her September 11 conspiracy theories and a scuffle with a Capitol police officer.)

Because Johnson is the chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts and Competition Policy, which oversees antitrust law, he's been involved in technology regulation over the last few years--usually taking a pro-regulatory view.

During a February 25 hearing, he worried that the Comcast-NBC combination could end up restricting "access to NBC programming on the Internet." Last September, Johnson said he was "troubled" by the Google Books settlement and that judges were usurping Congress' authority.

In 2007, Johnson said this about Internet access taxes: "If we could liken the Internet to a mall, a place where you can go in and purchase goods and services, and also liken it to a library, a place where you can go and pull a book, pull a resource, and obtain some information, why would we tax a person upon entering a mall or why would we tax a person upon entering the library?"

In a hearing earlier this year, Johnson offered this observation, referring to the CEO-turned-Republican-politician: "It's hard to follow a mind like Darrell Issa's. And then, I must admit, during my prior career, I was an attorney. And so I feel like I've been set up here to seem like attorneys throughout the country look either good or bad."

Perhaps Johnson could ask Ted " Series of Tubes " Stevens, another attorney-politician involved in tech policy who may not have grasped certain concepts fully, which possibility is more likely.

Excerpt from Guam hearing transcript:

Johnson: This is an island that, at its widest level is, what, 12 miles from shore to shore? And at its smallest level or smallest location, it's seven miles between one shore and the other. Is that correct?

Willard: I don't have the exact dimensions, but to your point, sir, I think Guam is a small island.

Johnson: A very small island and about 24 miles, if I recall, long. So 24 miles long, about seven miles wide at the least widest place on the island and about 12 miles wide on the widest part of the island. And I don't know how many square miles that is. Do you happen to know?

Willard: I don't have that figure with me, sir. I can certainly supply it to you if you'd like.

Johnson: Yes. My fear is that the whole island will become so overly populated that it will tip over and capsize.

Willard: We don't anticipate that. The Guam population, I think, currently about 175,000 and, again, with 8,000 Marines and their families, it's an addition of about 25,000 more into the population.

Johnson: And, also, things like the environment, the sensitive areas of the environment--coral reefs and those kinds of things. And I know that, you know, lots of people don't like to think about that, but you know, we didn't think about global warming either.

Now, we do have to think about it. And so I'm concerned from an environmental standpoint whether or not Guam is the best place to do this relocation, but it's actually the only place. Is that correct?

Willard: This is the best place. This is the farthest west U.S. territory that we own. And, you know, this is part of our nation. And in readdressing the forward presence and posture importance to Pacific Command, Guam is vital to this decision.

 

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