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House may ban honorific resolutions

Celebratory bills — honoring historical figures, or a town's anniversary, or a major local attraction — are a big part of House business. Incoming Republican leaders say they're a waste of time.

November 25, 2010|By Lisa Mascaro and Richard Simon, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — The House this session has spent time honoring Geronimo, celebrating the Hollywood Walk of Fame's 50th anniversary, declaring country music a distinctly American art form and congratulating the Saratoga Race Course on its 142nd season.

But the days of lawmakers spending hours on such niceties are on the way out.

A leader of the House's new Republican majority intends to end the practice of voting on such resolutions — or at least dramatically scale it back.

Today's Republicans, imbued with a sense that Washington's priorities have become muddled, contend that most commemorations are a waste of floor time needed for more pressing matters.

"I do not suspect 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," said Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the next House majority leader. "I believe people want our time, energy and efforts focused on their priorities."

Defenders of the practice say the resolutions are a time-honored tradition that bring deserved recognition to individuals and groups while providing moments of bipartisan good cheer in an otherwise divisive Capitol.

The practice also hasn't seemed to hamper the current Congress from passing a bounty of major legislation, including healthcare and financial overhauls, over the last few years.

"Look, they're really important to people in our localities," said Rep. Bob Filner (D-Chula Vista), who offered several resolutions this session, including one recognizing the celebration of Filipino American History Month. "It doesn't cost us a lot of money. It's important for local pride."

Congress has been down this road before. When Newt Gingrich became House speaker in 1995 after the Republican landslide, he sought to ban resolutions designating special days, weeks and months — like National Asparagus Month, Wine Appreciation Week and National Fragrance Week.

The results were striking. Commemorations plummeted from a high of 41% of all bills passed in the mid-1980s to 12% in 1995-96.

But this being Washington, lawmakers found a way around the new rules. Because the ban restricted only commemorations designating a specific time period, lawmakers soon started bestowing less temporal honors — as in "supporting the goals and ideals of American Craft Beer Week."

Now members of both parties indulge in the practice, introducing hundreds of celebratory resolutions every session. It's the kind of Washington addiction that the opposition wave against politics-as-usual has set its sights on.

Singling out the resolution marking Confucius' birth as an example of a time-waster, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R- Utah) sneered, "We shouldn't have done it until he was at least 2,600 years old."

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), among those voting against the Confucius resolution, remarked at the time: "He who spends time passing trivial legislation may find himself out of time to read healthcare bill."

Critics say there are other ways for lawmakers to recognize a surfing champion or salute baseball bat maker Hillerich & Bradsby Co. on the 125th anniversary of the Louisville Slugger without requiring a House vote.

Earlier this year, Chaffetz voted against a resolution recognizing the Hollywood Walk of Fame, saying his district also has an amusement park but "I'm not coming to the United States Congress asking for recognition of it."

Approving such measures has been a long-standing practice at every level of government. A congressional report said that for 200 years, lawmakers have expressed gratitude, noted individual virtue and otherwise acknowledged significant events.

Mother's Day become a national celebration after a resolution was passed in 1914 honoring moms. Just last week, the House congratulated Joe Paterno on his 400th win as Penn State football coach and the town of Tarboro, N.C., on its 250th anniversary.

The question is whether the attempt to eradicate these kinds of resolutions is about the need to get down to legislative business, or is merely grandstanding against a Washington habit.

"When people grumble about an 'out-of-control' government, I doubt it has anything to do with members taking a few moments to honor and congratulate the people and places they are elected to serve," said Ken Willis, an aide to Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), who wrote the Tarboro resolution.

For those on the receiving end of congressional praise, the honor is significant.

In January, local officials posed for photos at the Bronx County Historical Society after receiving a resolution from Rep. Jose E. Serrano (D-N.Y.) celebrating the centennial history of the Grand Concourse as "the preeminent thoroughfare in the borough of the Bronx."

Bronx historian Lloyd Ultan said it was not every day such an honor from Washington was given to one of the nation's poorer communities — "and not every other day either."

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