Few things Congress does come in for more ridicule than its penchant for naming post offices. While the exercise soaks up some floor time and keeps the clerks busy, it alters public policy not one bit. Instead, each new honorific provides lawmakers with nothing beyond a sliver of feel-good accomplishment.
But even perpetuating this hallmark of our “do-nothing” legislative era is becoming complicated by partisan gamesmanship and the ideological strife inside the Republican Party.
The most prominent postal tribute hanging in the balance this summer would offer a startlingly modest tribute to Barry Goldwater — who drove the resurgence of the Republican right half a century ago, was the party’s 1964 presidential candidate and was hailed as “Mr. Conservative” during his three decades as a senator from Arizona.
But for all that, what congressional Republicans have united behind is naming in his honor a U.S. Postal Service complex in the urban sprawl of Prescott, which was the territorial capital of his state. The facility is across the four-lane from a paint distributor, a body shop and a diner, and down the road from fairgrounds that host the nation’s oldest continuously operated rodeo. It’s not even close to the historic downtown where, by tradition, Arizona politicians announce their candidacies and hold election-eve rallies.
Goldwater’s ideas about shrinking the social safety net, strengthening national defense, giving states more control over policymaking and constricting workers’ rights laid the predicate for Ronald Reagan’s ascendancy and sound much like what currently unifies Republicans in Congress. But his environmentalist convictions and his brand of libertarianism — he backed abortion rights and gay rights and derided intolerance by the religious right — are anathema to the vast majority of those same lawmakers.
In other words, the icon of conservatism at the time when most GOP members were born would find it very tough getting past a tea-party primary challenger today.
So it’s perhaps not all that surprising that, while almost 90 roads, bridges, schools and other facilities have been named after Reagan (including National Airport and, yes, one post office in rural Florida), the squat brown brick box in Prescott would join only a handful of facilities named for Goldwater. (Most prominent are the Phoenix airport’s busiest terminal and the Air Force Academy’s visitor center.)
What underscores the current limits of Goldwater love was the timing of the House’s debate on its damning-with-faint-praise legislation. The five minutes of discussion and voice vote were on July 14, two days shy of the 50th anniversary of the high point of the senator’s national prominence — his acceptance of the GOP presidential nomination. But none of the lawmakers mentioned the coincidence or cited his famous call for an anti-communist jihad that night. "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” he thundered to the convention in San Francisco and “moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."
Goldwater took just 39 percent of the popular vote and 52 electoral votes in his landslide loss to President Lyndon B. Johnson. He had to leave the Senate to run, but he returned to the chamber in 1969 and stayed until retiring in 1986. In his final term, he was chairman of the Intelligence and Armed Services committees, where he wrote a landmark law streamlining the military chain of command and increasing the role of the joint chiefs of staff.
It took 11 months for Rep. Paul Gosar, a second-term Republican from Prescott, to advance his modest tribute to the floor. And to get even that far appeared to require a measure of behind-the-scenes bipartisan deal-making that’s rare these days no matter how consequential the proposal. The Goldwater measure was packaged with nine other post office bills, one of which would offset the tribute to a pro-business conservative with similar honors for a labor movement hero.
That bill would name the mail center in New York’s Grand Central Station for Vincent Sombrotto, the letter carrier who led the wildcat strike that shut down post offices nationwide for a week in 1970 and prompted a call-up of the National Guard. The walkout spurred Congress to pass the law making the Postal Service a quasi-independent entity and providing collective-bargaining rights for most of its workers.
Goldwater died in 1998 and Sombrotto in 2013, both at age 89. And now slivers of their memories are intertwined and in the hands of the Senate, where compromises on the most minor and symbolic matters appear even more rare than in the House. There’s no certainty a unanimous consent agreement can be cut that offers even minimal honors to a faded conservative icon along with a liberal champion. (Postal bills routinely decree that no money is attached, so newly labeled post offices don’t get so much as a plaque in the lobby or lettering on the door.)
More than 15 percent of statutes enacted in each of the previous five Congresses put a fresh moniker on a post office. So far in the 113th, the figure is 4 percent – just five naming measures out of 127 public laws to date. The Goldwater and Sombrotto proposals are among 60 that still have a shot. Their ultimate fate is a decent indicator of how this year will be remembered.