As the House and Senate bickered over year-end payroll tax relief and jobless benefits, a new tribute to the nearly 3,000 men and women who died in the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, moved quietly through Congress.
The Senate approved the bill by unanimous consent; the House vote was 416 to 0. President Obama signed the bill Dec. 23.
The legislation commissions the U.S. Treasury to design and strike three Congressional Gold Medals to honor the civilians, public safety workers, airline passengers and crew members killed at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the passengers and crew members of Flight 93, which crashed in a field near Shanksville, Pa.
The medal is the highest civilian honor bestowed by Congress. The awards are to be displayed at each of the three memorials planned and built in lower Manhattan, Northern Virginia and Pennsylvania as tangible recognition of the victims.
Yet for a tribute to such a searing event, the Fallen Heroes of 9/11 Act is notable for the time it took to pass: Ten years and three months after the attacks.
It was, supporters say, a lesson in the messy process of getting a bill through Congress, even when its appeal is universal.
“It’s fair to say that this process has been one where there have been many joys,” said Patrick White of Naples, Fla., whose cousin, Louis Nacke II, was killed on United Airlines Flight 93, “and many moments where we recognized we would have to put another shoulder to the boulder.”
Since 1776, Congress has bestowed about 300 gold medals for distinguished achievement and heroism. The award first honored military leaders, but by the 19th century its scope had broadened and its recipients eventually included George M. Cohan, Robert Frost, Bob Hope, Walt Disney, Marian Anderson, Charles Lindbergh and Simon Wiesenthal.
The group includes a few multiple honorees, including the Tuskegee Airmen, the country’s first black military airmen, and the Navajo Code Talkers, who transmitted secret communications on World War II battlefields.
Days after the Sept. 11 attacks, a flurry of gold medal bills was introduced. But they ran into the realities of legislating.
Getting 290 sponsors in the House and 66 in the Senate, the two-thirds majority required for gold medal bills, seemed easier than it was. Figuring out how to honor the largest number of people in the gold medal’s history was a challenge.
“We all had our different views,” said Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), the lead House sponsor of the bill that passed last week.
Some of the early bills proposed medals for the men and women who died on Flight 93, but did not include the thousands lost at the Pentagon and World Trade Center.
Another complication: Should the victims at each site be honored collectively, or with individual medals? Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) had a different approach with his bill in 2003 — a gold medal for each memorial site, a silver one for the next of kin of each person who was killed and a bronze medal for the duty station of any first responder killed.
“Mr. Schumer is very powerful and comes from a key state that suffered immensely on that day,” said Will Hollier, the Washington lobbyist hired by the Families of Flight 93 to get the legislation moving. “But a lot of questions were raised about whether the bill was too cumbersome.”
Skeptics wondered how next of kin would be determined if a spouse remarried or the candidates were a divorced couple. Congress had never awarded the same medal to thousands of people.
The early bills died, beset by these challenges and the high hurdle of co-sponsorships.
With the 112th Congress, the path grew steeper. The House passed a rule limiting Congressional Gold Medals to two a year, in line with the limit for commemorative coins.
The 10th anniversary of the attacks approached. The families and other advocates stepped up their efforts, hoping to jog lawmakers’ interest with the milestone.
Hollier assigned an intern to work full time buttonholing lawmakers. House and Senate staffers went door-to-door with clipboards, hoping the Dear Colleague letter had not been deleted from members’ in-boxes. Senate leaders relaxed the rules, requiring fewer co-sponsors.
“Members are pulled in a ton of different ways,” said Shuster, whose district includes Shanksville. “We had to approach them face-to-face. That takes time.”
The bill passed the Senate three days before the 10th anniversary. But it hit a roadblock in the House, where supporters were told that language directing proceeds from the sale of bronze replicas to the memorial funds would raise objections in money committees.
In these budget-conscious times, all of the revenue needed to go to the Treasury.
With the language changed, the bill passed the House on Friday with 332 sponsors.
It will now be up to engravers at the U.S. Mint to design three identical medals with a scene evoking the attacks. No timetable has been given.
“Certainly there is a great feeling of satisfaction, seeing this pass,” said Gordon Felt, president of the Families of Flight 93, whose brother Edward, a computer software engineer, made a call to 911 from the air.
“One thing I’ve learned from this is that the workings of the legislative process can be cumbersome,” Felt said.