Complaint bill draws, well, complaints

WASHINGTON — Rep. Emanuel Cleaver wanted people to stop complaining for a day and count their blessings.

What he got, however, was just more complaints.

Indeed, the Missouri Democrat was on the receiving end this week of an angry torrent of ill will from the Internet about him and about Congress.

It was a reminder — as if anyone needed it — that in the era of 24/7 smackdown politics, nothing is out of bounds.

"We're such a polarized nation and we look for things to argue over," Cleaver said. "But to argue over complaining?"

What became instant fodder for the Web, talk radio, podcasts and even the old-fashioned nightly news started innocently enough.

Cleaver offered legislation in June to set aside the day before Thanksgiving as "Complaint Free Wednesday." He did so at the request of a Kansas City-area faith-oriented group that was promoting positive attitudes toward life.

The bill encouraged "people to look forward, not backward," Cleaver said in a letter to House colleagues seeking support, a "meaningful and powerful reminder to prepare for a day of gratitude."

This is a Congress that has given us National Ice Cream Month and found time to praise the plumbing industry. Free Comic Book Day still weighs heavily on its calendar.

Surely, then, the notion that on Thanksgiving eve, people might stop whining for just a day, take stock, and instead give thanks would not seem to be a threat to the republic.

"I thought dissent and complaining were patriotic," thundered one reader after some Web sites printed Cleaver's "Dear Colleague" letter.

"I thought DC had gotten as stupid as they could get and I was wrong," groused another.

Cleaver said that calls from the overwrought to his office went something like this: "I want you to show me where in the Bible it says I shouldn't complain. I haven't seen anything where Jesus asked us not to complain."

(Maybe not Jesus, Cleaver noted, but Paul in Philippians, Chapter 4 verse 8, comes pretty close: "Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.")

The three-term congressman is an unlikely candidate to unleash the furies. A Methodist minister for nearly four decades, Cleaver also leads the National Prayer Breakfast and is the founder of the House Civility Caucus.

He said that he never expected the bill to go anywhere, nor for people to stop complaining.

"Go ahead. We don't have complaint police," he said. "It was just a way to make a statement."

Rep. Sam Graves, a Republican House colleague from the Kansas City area and a co-sponsor, offered the same legislation last year, but with none of the accompanying political fireworks.

The Rev. Will Bowen of the One Community Spiritual Center in Kansas City and the founder of the group behind the idea, A Complaint Free World, said that Cleaver has been misunderstood.

"Complaint Free is not about asking people to just 'shut up and suck up' whatever comes their way," he said. "Complaining is pointing out problems, and pointing out problems is easy; looking for solutions takes effort."

Some have cheered the idea. In a request for an interview, an Australian radio station wrote Cleaver's office, "We think the idea is fantastic and we'd like to champion it in Australia as well."

Good luck with that, Cleaver said. No stranger to sermons, he said the moral of this story was clear:

"Next time you ask people to count their blessings, duck."