Back to previous page


Post Most

With Republican majority, House loses its resolve for symbolic legislation

By ,

Something is off in the House of Representatives: It’s already July 4, and the House still has not yet registered its opinions on bald eagles, motherhood or the American flag.

By last Independence Day, the House had already voted to approve Resolution 1409, which declared the bald eagle “an inspiring symbol.” It had approved Resolution 1295, saying that American mothers “have made immeasurable contributions.” Resolution 1429 affirmed that “the United States flag is universally honored.”

Bills such as these — whose only purpose is to commemorate, congratulate or celebrate — are the legislative equivalent of empty calories. And last year, the House was on a binge.

It passed more than 250, honoring everything from the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. to the Interfraternity Council/Panhellenic Dance Marathon at Penn State University.

But the House’s new Republican leaders have stopped these resolutions, saying they distract from the real work of Congress.

That has set off a debate about what the real work of Congress is. Supporters of these resolutions say the symbolic gestures are better than no gestures at all, in a legislature close to paralysis.

“Oftentimes, communities that deserve to be heard in Congress aren’t being heard,” and the resolutions are designed to fix that, said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.).

This year, she has proposed five, including ones honoring National HIV Testing Day, Multiple Sclerosis Awareness Week and Professional Social Work Month.

House leaders won’t bring any of them up for a vote. “To me,” Lee said, “that is just outright wrong.”

GOP leaders announced their decision last year as they prepared to take over the House after four years of Democratic control. There would be no more of the special votes used for “expressions of appreciation and recognition.” The House would still vote to name post offices after people — often fallen service members — but only one day per month.

“I do not suspect,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) wrote to other legislators, “that Jefferson or Madison ever envisioned Congress honoring the 2,560th anniversary of the birth of Confucius or supporting the designation of national ‘Pi’ day.”

In the previous two years, the House had honored both — and a great deal more. In 2010, the roughly 260 commemorative resolutions accounted for 36 percent of all the bills the House passed. That was a sharp difference from the 1960s, when they accounted for less than 10 percent of legislation.

Last year alone, legislators celebrated 15 college sports teams and 14 separate “awareness” months (September was shared by three diseases and “child awareness”).

They honored the long dead: Sam Houston, a Texas icon who died in 1863, and Andrea Palladio, an Italian architect who died in 1580. They honored the non-human: Birds, bees and butterflies were celebrated with a resolution on National Pollinator Week.

And they honored the inanimate: motor homes, backcountry airstrips, lasers and craft beer.

For each of them, legislative staffers wrote up a resolution in stilted Congress-ese, heavy on the “whereas” and “resolved.” And the House stopped its other business for a staged sort of “debate.”

“The resolution, as offered, acknowledges how vital bees and other pollinators are to our ecosystem,” said Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-Fla.), advocating for the resolution on National Pollinator Week last July. He spoke for three minutes and 51 seconds.

“I urge all of my colleagues to become members of the Congressional Pollinator Protection Caucus,” Hastings said.

All members of the House were summoned for a vote, which came out 412 to 0 in favor of the pollinators.

This year, the House is trying to quit cold turkey. That’s fine with some legislators, such as Rep. Robert E. Latta (R-Ohio), who had previously sponsored resolutions honoring the American flag on Flag Day.

Latta didn’t submit a bill this year. He just flew the flag at home.

“If we’re going to do a ban, we’re going to do a ban,” Latta said. “If we’re going to start making exceptions, then it all falls apart.”

But others, from both parties, have chafed at the rules.

Two found ways around the ban: Rep. Michael G. Grimm (R-N.Y.) slipped one measure, honoring intelligence officers who hunted Osama bin Laden, into a larger bill. Lee rewrote a resolution about victims of last year’s Haitian earthquake. The new bill requested a report on the progress of the recovery effort. It passed.

Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) said Republicans should make an exception for a planned resolution on the Chinese Exclusion Act, a policy that halted Chinese immigration for decades. “I can understand not doing a resolution on a winning sports team,” Chu said. But this is different, she said. “This is actually not a celebratory resolution. It’s one for atonement for a terrible act that took place.”

For some activist groups, accustomed to an annual House resolution in their honor, the ban has meant the loss of a small but heartening ritual.

The National Multiple Sclerosis Society often sent its local activists the video of the debate that preceded the vote. It showed legislators sharing stories about friends or loved ones with the disease.

“It gives them a sense of hope . . . that somebody’s listening and somebody else cares,” said David Chatel, an executive vice president. This year there was no vote and no video. “Can we live without it? Yeah. But it’s certainly not helpful.”

For other recipients, the lack of a House resolution was less of a blow. “We never got it in time anyway,” said John Janik, the president of the National Flag Day Foundation in Waubeka, Wis. In past years, Janik said, Congress usually worked so slowly that its official resolution would arrive after the ceremonies for the June 14 holiday were over.

This year, the Democratic-controlled Senate has gone on passing resolutions. On Thursday, it declared July 23 “The Day of the American Cowboy.”

But the House’s change has been welcome news for good-government groups. The resolutions “masked an inability for Congress to work on substantive legislation,” said Steve Ellis of the group Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Does that mean Congress will work on substantive legislation now — in a time weighted with worry about war, the deficit and debt?

“They have to,” Ellis said.

Well, not exactly. The rules prohibit legislators from voting to celebrate anniversaries, championships, animals or people. It’s still perfectly fine to talk about them.

“Mr. Speaker, I rise today to call attention to the 90th birthday for . . . a restaurant,” Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio) said on June 14. She was the only person speaking on the floor of the House of Representatives.

“It’s that little square hamburger,” Schmidt said. “White Castle.”

© The Washington Post Company