The death of Rep. Tom Lantos this week brought to seven the number of Capitol Hill lawmakers who have died during the 110th Congress, which still has almost another year to go.

Like most of the others, the California Democrat succumbed to cancer.

The current congressional death toll is the highest in at least a decade, but it pales next to the 76th Congress (1939-41), when 29 members passed on.

According to research by two George Washington University professors, more than 1,000 lawmakers have died in office since the first session of Congress. Of those, eight committed suicide, 17 died in airplane accidents, 11 in car crashes and two each in train and steamboat mishaps.

Only one — so far — has died at the hand of a fellow legislator. In 1838, Rep. Jonathan Cilley, D-Maine, was shot to death in a duel with Rep. William Graves, Whig-Ky., over a dispute concerning an influence-peddling charge stirred up by the New York Courier and Enquirer newspaper.

Hard as it may be to believe, there is no national system in place to check the criminal backgrounds of workers at the nursing homes, residential-care facilities and home-health programs that serve the most vulnerable elderly among us.

With cases of elderly abuse growing in number — and millions of baby boomers worried about the well-being of their aged parents and their own looming decline — pressure is building to change that. Attorneys general from 39 states are calling on Congress to establish a nationwide system of background checks.

They note that a 2005 study in Michigan found that more than 10 percent of nursing-home employees reviewed had criminal backgrounds, including homicide, sexual-assault and drug charges.

With spring just around the corner, scientists attempting to track the effects of climate change are asking for your help. Scientists have invited interested members of the public to record when this or that species of flower and tree pops open, and where. “Project Budburst,” a partnership set up by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research and supported by the National Science Foundation, can be found on the Web at

Add those “citizen scientists” to the growing roster of John and Jane Publics who are engaging in what used to be the purview of specialists. First, there were “citizen soldiers,” the National Guard and Reserve troops who leave their civilian lives to help defend the country in times of trouble. Then came “citizen journalists,” regular folks who report their own version of the news on blogs and elsewhere. And now we have “citizen diplomats.”

The Council for the National Interest Foundation — a group opposed to what it considers America’s Israel-centric tilt — is recruiting 10 people to join a 16-day “political pilgrimage” to the Middle East, where they will meet with Israeli and Arab officials and activists. The deadline to apply is Feb. 25, at

In his citizen-soldier role, Sen. Lindsay Graham is also heading to the Middle East. The South Carolina Republican, who is a colonel in the Air Force Reserve, will soon be serving his third mini-tour in Iraq in 10 months. Unlike most troops, he will deploy for just 10 days, during which he will focus on legal work involving detainees. Graham spent six years on active duty as an Air Force lawyer.

Meanwhile, Marine Lance Cpl. Jim McCain — son of GOP presidential contender Sen. John McCain, who also happens to be a close friend of Graham — just returned from seven months at war in Iraq. There were white knuckles on the flight carrying 300 members of Bravo 11, 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Division when the plane developed mechanical trouble and had to divert to Portsmouth International Airport in New Hampshire.

(E-mail Lisa Hoffman at hoffmanl(at) SHNS correspondent Lee Bowman contributed to this column.)