WASHINGTON — As a member of Congress, Rep. Dan Lungren said he has grown accustomed to dealing with crazy folks.
On Easter morning, a motorcyclist spotted the license plates on his car, then pulled up next to him and asked if he was a congressman. The Republican from Gold River said yes.
"He started using profanities and telling me how I was a criminal and I ought to go to jail," Lungren said. "Then he pulled the motorcycle to the other side of the car, where my wife was, and repeated the very same thing, to which my wife responded, 'Have a nice Easter.'"
Lungren said he didn't feel any particular need to publicize the harassment. And he wishes more of his colleagues would follow suit.
"We ought to kind of cool it in terms of the publicity of this stuff," Lungren said. "I don't think it serves any purpose other than maybe encourage some nutcases out there because they think they'll get publicity about it. We don't publicize these things and I think that's good. I think, by and large, we ought to go back to it."
The issue of harassment made headlines this week after highly-publicized threats against Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington.
As the top-ranked Republican on the House Subcommittee on Capitol Security, Lungren gets regular briefings from Capitol police, who investigate any threats made against a member of Congress.
While Capitol police won’t say anything about the issue, Lungren said there’s no data to suggest that the number of threats is increasing this year.
“I have no evidence at this point that there is a steep rise in threats or that it’s a more dangerous situation with respect to members of Congress,” he said.
Lungren’s assessment was challenged Friday by Democrats on the subcommittee.
“Discussions with members of Congress and law enforcement officials have shown increased incidents of threats directed at members,” said House Administration Committee Chairman Robert Brady of Pennsylvania and Capitol Security Subcommittee Chairman Michael E. Capuano of Massachusetts in a joint statement. They said they are working with Capitol police, along with federal, state and local law enforcement officials “to ensure the safety of members of Congress and view these threats seriously.”
It’s difficult to say who’s right.
Sgt. Kimberly Schneider, spokeswoman for the Capitol police, said the department tracks the number of threats made against members but does not release the information to the public.
“We keep internal statistics,” she said.
One thing’s certain: There’s no doubt that members are discussing threats more — and Republicans and Democrats alike are accusing each other of playing politics.
Democrats have accused Republicans of inciting the public with tough partisan talk, while Republicans suggested Democrats were going public with their threats in an attempt to win sympathy.
Lungren said the official policy is to keep all threats private, unless arrests are made and charges are filed, which is what happened in the Pelosi and Murray cases.
Pelosi allegedly received a death threat from a San Francisco man who was arrested at his home on Wednesday. And on Tuesday, authorities charged a Washington man after he allegedly made threatening calls to Murray. Both were targeted after they voted to approve a health-care bill that angered many opponents.
Earlier, charges were filed against a Philadelphia man who allegedly made a video that threatened Virginia Republican Rep. Eric Cantor.
But many cases that have not resulted in any charges have been made public in recent weeks.
Among them: Michigan Democratic Rep. Bart Stupak, who announced that he had received hostile and threatening messages, and Democratic Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York, who had a brick thrown through her office and received a voice mail that made reference to snipers.
With the exception of Pelosi, local representatives — including Democratic Reps. Doris Matsui of Sacramento and Mike Thompson of Napa Valley — have not received any threats.
Lungren noted that while many members of Congress are going public with the threats against them, nearly all threats against the president are kept quiet.
“We shouldn’t be any different,” he said. “The Secret Service has to run down all sorts of purported threats against the president and vice president,” he said. “That’s always been done, but you almost never read about it in the newspapers. … It doesn’t aid the investigation to publicize it. To what end? In my judgment, it doesn’t serve any legitimate purpose.”
Moreover, he noted, people have every right to speak up.
“It’s when they go from the position of saying something nasty about a member of Congress, which the Constitution allows them to do, to becoming an actual threat of physical harm,” Lungren said.