Every so often, in the hushed galleries of Congress, history unfolds in a manner that casts the momentous business of Capitol Hill in stark, even humbling relief.
Then there are moments spent discussing the Whizzinator.
Yesterday morning in Room 2123 of the Rayburn Building, Rep. Bart Stupak, a sober-voiced Democrat from Michigan, held up an advertisement for the "drug-test subversion device," which received national attention last week when it was learned that an NFL player had been detained at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport after authorities found the state-of-the-art prosthetic in his luggage (with a packet of dehydrated urine). The player -- Onterrio Smith of the Minnesota Vikings -- was detained, word of his predicament leaked (ahem), and Smith became an inadvertent billboard for the Whizzinator.
The Whizzinator isn't quite the gold standard in athletic endorsements. Rather, Stupak is bemoaning the ease with which people can buy Whizzinators with credit cards, money orders or checks, and have them delivered by U.S. mail or UPS or FedEx.
"How will we stop the flow?" he asks plaintively. A small cluster of spectators -- seizing on the unintended double-entendre -- giggle audibly in the back of the room.
It is one of those mornings.
The hearing -- which was scheduled before the Smith incident -- lasts three hours and includes testimony from federal investigators, district attorneys and representatives from the drug-testing sector (including the aptly named Barry Sample of Quest Diagnostics Inc.). They testify eloquently about the perils, loopholes and outrages inherent in drug-masking and "the human cost of adulterated or substituted specimens." They keep mentioning the Whizzinator.
Onlookers stifle cackles and snickers, or try to. "People want to make this a skit on 'Saturday Night Live,' " says Rep. Joe Barton. But it's not funny, the Texas Republican says, not funny at all.
"You don't want to be able to walk into your local Kmart or something and buy a Whizzinator," testifies Susan Reed, the district attorney from Bexar County, Tex.
"This has been like free advertising for the Whizzinator," bemoans Robert Cramer, an investigator for the Government Accountability Office, referring to the Smith incident.
Cramer is stretching his legs during a brief recess while a small spectacle develops a few feet away. A press scrum gathers around Dennis Catalano, originator of the Whizzinator. He is one of three representatives from companies that make products that could be used to subvert drug tests who have been compelled (by subpoena) to testify.
Catalano, who owns Puck Technology of Signal Hill, Calif., is something of a Henry Ford figure in this business. There are all manner of urine purifiers and substitutes on the market. But nobody beats the Whizzinator in terms of brand recognition, especially after Onterrio Smith.
Still, no one is revering these men as industrial visionaries. Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) calls them "jokers" and asks one how they can sleep at night.
In response to questions from reporters, Catalano merely strokes his long gray beard and presses down on his lips with two fingers. How has the airport incident been for business?
"He will not be saying anything," says Barry Boss, Catalano's attorney. At one point, Catalano, who is wearing a white sport jacket over a Hawaiian shirt, emits strained squeaks, and one reporter asks if he is actually capable of speaking.
"Yes," Catalano whispers, now pulling on his beard.
Catalano takes his seat when Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), chairman of the oversight and investigations subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce Committee, calls the hearing back to order. After a videotaped appearance by a prison inmate who testifies about the ease with which he could evade drug tests, Catalano and his fellow barons move to the front of the hearing room. They rise, in tandem, raise their right hands and take their oaths. Whitfield asks Catalano a question about the potential legitimate uses of the Whizzinator.
"On the advice of my attorney," Catalano says quietly, "I respectfully decline to answer under my Fifth Amendment right."
Whitfield dismisses Mr. Whizzinator, who bolts from the hearing room, grinning. He arrived in Washington this morning, on the red-eye from California, and is now headed back to the airport. No, he says in response to a question, he did not get to enjoy the spring day, see any sights or take in the monuments.
"But I've seen one of the greatest monuments of all," Catalano says, now fully animated. "I've sat before one of the greatest bodies in the world." With that, the originator of the Whizzinator marches toward a waiting car and into history.