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.”