Stuff it

The taxidermy issue requires advanced autopsy by the serious political ethicist. Not that the scholars at the Texas Ethics Commission have been derelict--indeed not. Their December decree that Texas lawmakers may henceforth disburse campaign funds in order to stuff animal heads, thereafter to reside upon their office walls, is positively Solomonic. Stuffed geese, duck, and fish are also included in the decree.

As political consultant Bill Miller advised the Austin American-Statesman, there is even a rather Buddhist circularity to this decision, in that much campaign money comes from lobbyists in the first place, and many of the deceased critters to be seen on the walls of the Capitol were offed on lobby-sponsored hunting junkets.

State Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, showing that unfortunate levity we have so often had occasion to deplore, demanded to know, "Does that apply to stuffing a Republican?" Taxidermy is a non-partisan issue at our Capitol. You may recall that the man who most resembled a stuffed governor was Democrat Dolph Briscoe. So strong was Briscoe's resemblance to a mounted mummy that his tenure was periodically plagued by rumors that he was dead or had gone 'round the bend and was incarcerated somewhere. He once had to call a press conference to announce that he wasn't crazy, an inspiring moment for us all.

Perhaps the most taxidermically correct office in the history of the Lege belonged to that notable nimrod, Speaker Gib Lewis of Fort Worth, who was forever loping off to foreign parts to slay rare species. The horned results of his endeavors copiously decorated his office walls. Their soft brown eyes always seemed to me to glow encouragingly upon those of us who attempted to slay the speaker with pen alone.

So encumbered with deadheads was the Gibber's suite that his then-4-year-old granddaughter, upon sighting a full war bonnet also on display in his office, inquired touchingly, "Grandpa, when did you shoot that Indian?"

No, there can be no quarrel with the Zeitgeist of the Ethics Commission's decision in this matter; it is more a matter of the particulars. Using campaign donations to stuff deceased wildlife is all well and good, although it may cause some squeamish campaign donors to attach riders to the money they had intended to improve the governance of Texas. Sending off one's mite in support of some worthy champion of the people only to find that it has gone to stuffing Bambi's mom would give some donors pause. The Wildlife Rescue Committee should probably check out its PAC recipients carefully.

Among the finer points raised by the commission's decision is this: Does road kill count? Suppose one has inadvertently deceased an armadillo with a Chevy pickup; can one have it anatomically resuscitated for office decor?

More troubling is the commission's ancillary call that legislators may not take their furry friends, stuffed at campaign expense, with them when they leave. They must, decreed the merciless Ethics Commission, either donate the things to charity or buy them with their own dollars. Otherwise, they remain at the Capitol. It is this last decision, so carelessly rendered, so thoughtlessly tendered, that causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.

Good friends, how often have we had occasion to deplore the Law of Untended Consequences in our polity? From the time the Legislature accidentally outlawed sex to the day that it passed a resolution honoring the Boston Strangler for his efforts in the field of population control, have we not time and again decried the heinous results of legislating without adequate forethought? Have you any notion what our Capitol could look like in just a few years' time?

With 150 members of the Texas House and 32 members of the Texas Senate (including the incumbent lieutenant governor, who has personally dispatched deer without number into the Great Beyond)--great gravy--the place will be awash in the heads of harmless beasties in no time flat.

Just an average year's turnover--not to mention the occasional scandal year--can produce up to 40 head of freshman legislators. Let's say that only half the departing brethren are hunters; with an average of five stuffed animals per office, right there we're stuck with 100 heads on the wall, and after that, it will only increase exponentially. In 10 years' time, there will be 500 heads on the wall, flowing out of the offices, into the corridors, along the stairways, down into the rotunda, crowding out the portraits of former governors, who always look stuffed anyway.

A generation from now, there won't be a free inch of wall showing in the entire Capitol complex. The Texas Employment Commission cafeteria will be plastered with dead beasts from trays-and-napkins to the Jell-O dessert section. Future state employees will file harassment suits, insisting that they've been driven 'round the twist from having to stare at stuffed mullet while processing workers' comp claims.

As a Texas legislator once declaimed, the sword of Damocles is hanging over Pandora's box here.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

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Molly Ivins

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