Commemorations Flourish, Despite the Rules

Posted November 24, 2004 at 3:16pm

Next to appropriations earmarks, the parochial lifeblood of Congress just might be commemorations, remembrances and recognitions. They provide every Member with an opportunity to affix the Congressional seal to a favorite group, cause, team, local interest, vegetable, or whatever they wish.

There’s only one small problem. For the past decade, House rules have prohibited them.

Of course, the prohibition hasn’t stopped Members — up to and including Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) — from indulging themselves.

There’s been National Preparedness Month. National Investors’ Day. National Donor Day. National Homeownership Month. National Mentoring Month. National Epilepsy Awareness Month. And there have been dozens, even hundreds, of others in the 108th Congress alone.

They all may be causes worthy of Congress’ time and attention. But each resolution honoring those days and months violates the spirit, if not the letter, of a House rule enacted by the new GOP majority in 1995 that remains in force. Pushed primarily by the Republican freshman class elected in 1994, the rule was designed to eliminate some of the frivolous and wasteful activity that the insurgent Republicans believed hamstrung the chamber under decades of Democratic rule.

But the commemorations didn’t stop. Instead, resolutions introduced during the past decade were carefully drafted to avoid running afoul of the rule. Yet recently, the House has wandered a little closer to flagrantly violating it — and immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, it actually did.

Two months ago the House recognized the year 2004 as the 60th anniversary of the “extraordinary heroism and steadfast loyalty exhibited by the people of Guam” in World War II. The resolution requested — but did not require — that the Interior secretary establish commemorative programs honoring the U.S. armed forces and the people of Guam.

Don Wolfensberger, who was the majority staff director of the Rules Committee when the commemorations ban was enacted in the 104th Congress, maintains that the resolution is a “clear violation” of House rules. Wolfensberger now serves as director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Another resolution, H.J. Res. 102 — which recognizes the battle of Peleliu, which ended Japanese control over the Pacific island of Palau — passed the House on the same day. It, too, recognizes 2004 as the 60th anniversary and urges the Interior secretary to protect the island’s historical landmarks and to establish programs honoring Americans who fought there.

Section 5 of Rule XII prohibits the introduction or consideration of any bill or resolution that “establishes or expresses a commemoration,” which it defines as a “remembrance, celebration, or recognition for any purpose through the designation of a specified period of time.”

Where these two commemorations went awry, Wolfensberger maintains, was in designating a specific period of time, the year 2004, for the remembrance.

“The Parliamentarians are not supposed to let you introduce it,” Wolfensberger said, adding that “the Parliamentarian doesn’t have final control. The Speaker makes the ultimate call as to whether it can be introduced.”

Hastert spokesman John Feehery said the interpretation used by the Speaker and the Parliamentarian allows resolutions like the ones commemorating Guam and Peleliu. Hastert himself introduced a resolution of this sort during the current Congress to remember the 60th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge.

Even though the other two World War II-era resolutions “recognize the year 2004 as the 60th anniversary,” the Speaker’s interpretation is that they don’t violate the rules because they don’t officially “establish” a particular time frame as a period of remembrance.

“That is what our interpretation of the rule is,” Feehery said. He then added that these resolutions are “not commemoratives in the traditional sense because they do not go to the president for his signature.”

Indeed, saving the House’s time and the president’s, as well as the resulting paperwork, was an original goal of the rules change. But Wolfensberger noted that the definition of commemoratives in Rule XII says nothing about the president. “It’s not confined to that in the rule,” Wolfensberger said.

But such technicalities sidestep the prohibition’s original intent.

Although it wasn’t part of the “Contract with America,” the impetus behind the commemorations ban was very much a part of the same package of reforms instigated by the Republicans who took over the House after 40 years of Democratic rule.

Beginning in the mid-1980s, commemoratives had became so popular — and, some argued, so distracting — that the panel then known as the Post Office and Civil Service Committee determined that only resolutions that had garnered a majority of lawmakers as co-sponsors would be passed out of the panel. Consequently, Members needed to gather 218 signatures on commemorative resolutions, a process that ended up requiring even more of the House’s time.

“Members just felt it was a nuisance and a waste of money,” Wolfensberger said. In those days, he said, the House would pass 10 or more commemorations a week and send them to the president for his signature.

The other goal of the rules change was to reduce the number of public laws enacted each year. To that end, the commemoration prohibition has been extremely effective. Since the rule was drafted, there have been hundreds fewer public laws written in each Congress.

In the 107th, however, at least one public law designating a day of remembrance made it past the rule. A joint resolution to amend Title 36, chapter 1 of U.S. Code to designate Sept. 11 as Patriot Day passed both chambers and was signed by President Bush.

The day before H. J. Res. 71 was introduced and passed by the House, Rules Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) asked unanimous consent that it be allowed, “without intervention of any point of order.” There was no objection.

Unless the House devises a way around it, as they did with Patriot Day, the prohibition on commemorations means that the Senate is effectively denied the ability to designate its own symbolic days, weeks or months. But the rule is not widely known, and commemorations bills that would amend U.S. Code are frequently introduced in the Senate. Those that win passage are sent to the House, only to be returned.

As long as the House rule is in effect, Congress can no longer create new national holidays. The only remaining option is to pass a resolution that instructs the president to issue a proclamation designating a legal holiday. But Congress cannot pick the date without the House breaking its own rules.

What remains is Congress’ ability — and Members’ perpetual desire — to introduce nonbinding resolutions that call for or support the idea of a given commemoration without actually mandating it.

“It has no force outside of the Capitol,” Wolfensberger said, adding, however, that “they are great fun to play with.”