Nussle and the Paper Bag
On Oct. 1, 1991, a freshman congressman from Iowa went to the House floor to give a speech to condemn the growing scandal surrounding an internal bank in the House of Representatives.
As he approached the microphone, he did something that cemented his speech as one of the most unusual acts in congressional history.
He put a paper bag on his head to demonstrate his embarrassment about the whole mess.
Jim Nussle. Yes, that Jim Nussle.
You can look it up. Try putting “Jim Nussle” and “paper bag” into a Google search and you’ll find clips of the CUNA CEO with the bag over his head.
The scandal involved an informal House bank that allowed members to overdraw their bank accounts without any penalties. A group of junior Republican House members known as the “Gang of Seven” sought to publicize the scandal as much as possible.
And so, on Oct. 1, 1991, Nussle approached the lectern in the well of the House, put the paper bag, replete with eye and nose holes, on his head for a few seconds. You can hear some giggles in the background.
Taking the bag off his head, Nussle said that it was time to take the “mask” off the institution. “It's time to bring honor back to this institution,” he added.
He continued, “It's time to expose the check-writing scandal I like to call Rubbergate. It is time to bring honor back to this institution.”
He was admonished by the Speaker Pro Tempore, Rep. Sonny Montgomery (D-Miss.), for having donned the bag; he was told it was improper to use exhibits in the House and that he was expected to respect the rules of the House.
Montgomery said he should have caught Nussle when he first put the bag on his head, but didn't.
“I wore it for approximately six seconds during a House one-minute speech meant to express my disgust and embarrassment with fellow members of Congress for not being able to manage their own personal expenses and stop the cover-up that had been going on concerning the incident,” Nussle recalled last week.
Those six seconds have been the subject of much exaggeration, according to Nussle.
“Often like a fish story it can be funny how people ‘remember’ the incident,” he said.
Some say he wore the bag the whole day. Or that the entire Congress wore bags. Or even that someone made him wear the bag.
Jim Nussle, pictured here at a CUNA event in 2016, reminisces about his 1991 “paper bag incident” with CU Times.
Nussle said when he decided to wear the bag, he left his office to look for the closest store where he could find a paper bag. It was the Congressional Liquor Store just off the Capitol Grounds.
“They just gave me one and no, I didn't make a purchase,” Nussle said. (Resist joke about Nussle being “half in the bag” when he used a bag from a liquor store.)
The internet didn't exist back then, but the incident gained a lot of attention, Nussle said. It appeared “above the fold” in most national publications and even merited a mention during a “Saturday Night Live” news update.
Nussle's official biography on the CUNA webpage mentions his tenure in the House and his having served as chairman of the House Budget Committee, but doesn't mention the bag act.
But he doesn't duck the issue and is perfectly willing to talk about the episode.
In 1994, the New York Times credited Nussle with having started the trend toward members of Congress trying to gain attention during speeches on the House floor.
“And members of Congress, increasingly aware of the cameras on the House and Senate floors, are looking to sight gags to make a point,” the Times said in a story with the headline, “When Politicians Get Funny.”
The Times, covering Nussle's 1992 re-election campaign, said some considered the paper bag incident to be a sophomoric stunt, while others saw it as an effective way to emphasize the House bank scandal.
Nussle, of course, agrees with the latter assessment.
“It helped expose a ridiculous practice and even criminal activity for which I believe six people, including members of Congress, served jail time,” he said.
In 2015, on the occasion of the 36th anniversary of C-SPAN, Washington Post columnist Chris Cillizza proclaimed Nussle's paper bag routine to be his third favorite C-SPAN moment. The first was Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) returning to the Senate floor after being treated for brain cancer. And the second was a call-in show in which two politico brothers – one a Democrat and one a Republican – received a phone call from their mother admonishing them for arguing during the holidays.
And yes, Nussle still has the bag. He said that during his tenure in the House, he kept it in a desk drawer “in case I needed it again.”
Now that he is at CUNA, the bag is at home.
“I’m still waiting for the Smithsonian to give me a call,” he said.
David Baumann is a Correspondent-at-Large for CU Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.