By Arie Dekker - 10/30/07 06:58 PM EDT
“I don’t think anybody wants mail carriers and kids to get bitten by dogs,” McCotter said, “[though] it’d be a heck of a floor speech to watch.”
This year alone, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has considered more than 50 resolutions recommending a period of time for commemorative observance. Aside from National Dog Bite Prevention Week, there is California Wine Month, Idaho Potato Month and the ever-vital National Watermelon Month.
However far-fetched they may sound, the panoply of resolutions declaring a period of national observance reflects Congress’s deference to constituent interests.
“I know how it sounds,” McCotter said. “The reality is, this is a serious issue.”
Every so often, he said, news reports reveal that some dog got loose and a small child was mauled. Not to mention the fact that dogs bite more than 3,000 U.S. Postal Service mail carriers each year and an unknown number of other door-to-door professionals.
“It’s kind of a laughing matter to some people,” McCotter said, “but it’s not to them.”
Citing his deference to principles of federalism, McCotter said he did not want to pass a law telling dog owners what to do. Instead, a commemorative observance would help draw attention to an important issue without dictating the solution with a heavy hand, he said.
The bottom line is commemorative observances “are important to our constituents,” said Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who has “been approached many times” by constituents asking for one special observance or another.
“Very few of them become holidays,” he added.
The holiday hierarchy
Despite the hundreds of observances immortalized by Congress, actual holidays are rare. For starters, there is no such thing as a national holiday. Thanksgiving, for example, is not a national holiday, but a federal holiday that every state in the union happens to endorse.
The federal holiday is the granddaddy of commemorative observances, and there are only 10 on the books. But again, in deference to federalism, observance on a national scale depends on each state’s voluntary cooperation. The 10 federal holidays are New Year’s Day, Martin Luther King Day, George Washington’s birthday (popularly called Presidents Day), Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day.
A step below the hallowed holiday is the perpetual commemorative observance, a national “special day” backed by legislation that calls for an annual presidential proclamation. These are joint resolutions requiring the president’s signature, and they carry the force of law.
While not special enough to merit a day off from work, these days, weeks and months can pick up real steam over the years. The oldest of these is Mother’s Day, enacted May 8, 1914. (Father’s Day didn’t gain official recognition until 1972, followed quickly by National Grandparents Day in 1979 and eventually by the more inclusive Parents’ Day in 1994.)
There are 43 observances in the U.S. Code. They range from National Aviation Day to American Heart Month. The older ones are National Maritime Day (1933) and Flag Day (1949), while the newer ones include National Korean War Veterans Armistice Day (1995) and Carl Garner Federal Lands Cleanup Day (1996).
Other observances, known generically as “commemorative observances,” can be declared by the president or either chamber of Congress. These are not automatically re-declared each year, though some get recognized consistently, like Sen. Joseph Biden’s (D-Del.) National Mammography Day, celebrated for the 15th straight year on Oct. 19.
The Senate has passed 47 resolutions for commemorative observances so far this year, while the House has considered more than 50. On average, the president issues a proclamation regarding a national observance, perpetual or not, about once every three days.
All commemorative legislation in the Senate falls within the purview of the Judiciary Committee. In a tradition set by the 107th Congress, the committee leaders prohibit the commemoration of commercial, political and religious organizations or products — which means no Google Awareness Month or Boston Red Sox Day. The committee will also not commemorate a particular state, city, school or other entity, so there is no District of Columbia Appreciation Week. Finally, the committee won’t commemorate a living person — no Al Gore Day, yet.
House standards are more lax, despite a 1995 ban by House Republicans on all legislation calling for commemorative observances. The ban resulted from the rapid increase in such legislation that had suddenly backlogged Congress with distracting paperwork. The rule forbids the designation of a certain time period for many national days, weeks and months.
A spokesman for the House Oversight Committee said lawmakers have since written around the rule change. One tweak is inserting language that says Congress supports particular goals (say, Idaho Potato Month) but it will not honor the time period. As long as the wording says Congress resolves to “support the goals and ideals” of any given commemoration, the event gets congressional recognition without a time period to memorialize it.
During October 2007, the president proclaimed National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, National Disability Employment Awareness Month. National Energy Awareness Month was declared last year, but didn’t make the cut this time around.
Throughout the month, the president also proclaimed a spate of other observances: Child Health Day, Leif Eriksson Day, National School Lunch Week, Columbus Day, Fire Prevention Week, General Pulaski Memorial Day, White Cane Safety Day, German-American Day, National Forest Products Week, National Character Counts Week and United Nations Day.
Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.), chairman of the Oversight panel’s subcommittee that handles commemorative legislation, said he thinks there are not too many commemorative observances. While they are not a serious priority, he said, each one can be meaningful for a select population.
“Given the fact that there are 250 million people in this country, I’d much rather spend my time … debating poverty and healthcare,” Davis said. “As representatives of a nation, [we] try and find ways to touch as many people as we can. And I think this is one way to touch people. So I think [observances] serve a useful purpose.”
Each resolution can be traced to constituents. Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), who hails from a district with a large Indian-American population, has sponsored a successful resolution that would officially recognize the Hindu festival of Diwali. Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) is sponsoring California Wine Month, while Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) is pushing for Idaho Potato Month.
Rep. Adam Putnam (Fla.), who chairs the House GOP Conference, is responsible for National Watermelon Month.
“I’ve got a huge watermelon-producing area in my district, and who doesn’t love watermelon?” said Putnam.
He reasons, “If you’re going to have an Ice Cream Month, you have to have a Watermelon Month. It’s good for you. It has lycopene,” a highly powerful antioxidant.
But Putnam also admits National Watermelon Month is not the high point of his time in Congress. “I wouldn’t let it be on my gravestone or anything,” he says, “but it’s very healthy, very healthy.”