By Zach Bergson - 06/20/12 12:02 AM EDT
For most Americans, March 11 was just an ordinary day — no religious events or national holidays marked their calendars. In the halls of Congress, however, lawmakers wanted to give that Sunday a special commemoration in honor of one of the oldest professions in the world — plumbing.
A Senate resolution declared March 11, 2012, “World Plumbing Day.” Never heard of it? No wonder — this was only the second year Congress observed such an occasion.
Many of these resolutions recognize issues in the health, military and safety fields, like Rep. Edward Markey’s (D-Mass.) “National Brain Aneurysm Awareness Month,” Sen. Richard Burr’s (R-N.C.) “Goldstar Wives Day” and Sen. Mike Crapo’s (R-Idaho) “National Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month.”
However, these resolutions cover almost any topic imaginable. Rep. Steve King’s (R-Iowa) “National Day of Remembrance of Victims of Illegal Immigrants” and Rep. Louie Gohmert’s (R-Texas) “Ten Commandments Weekend” are just two examples of resolutions that don’t fall into the three aforementioned categories.
“They congratulate Eagle Scouts, celebrate golden anniversaries and eulogize the recently departed,” Senate Historian Donald Ritchie wrote in his book The U.S. Congress: A Very Short Introduction. “On the same day, for instance, the Congressional Record carried resolutions establishing a National Dysphagia Awareness Month and a National Corvette Day, and one honoring the life of the winemaker Robert Mondavi.”
While it’s clear that these resolutions are broad and commonplace in Congress, it is less clear what they accomplish for lawmakers and their constituents. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) — who has sponsored three such resolutions over the past year and half — told The Hill with five simple words why commemorative legislation is important.
“I think people need recognition,” she said.
Ritchie had a different answer to this question.
“There’s also some political benefit to the members,” he said in an interview. “[The resolutions] show that they have been paying attention to good causes in their districts that their constituents are concerned about.”
The resolutions don’t need to pass for lawmakers to trumpet them. King, for instance, released a statement citing the Obama administration’s “refusal to enforce immigration law” and resulting “interruption of innocent lives” as cause for introducing his “National Day of Remembrance of Victims of Illegal Immigrants.” The bill didn’t make it out of committee.
Many groups whose causes get highlighted by one of these resolutions gush about what the legislation does for their constituency.
“[The Ten Commandments resolution] gets people thinking about the ideals that the Founders wanted us to live up to,” Yomin Postelnik, the director of the Ten Commandments Commission, said in regard to Gohmert’s “Ten Commandments Weekend” resolution. Postelnik’s group aims to rally public officials and activists to infuse Judeo-Christian values into society.
Janelle Greenlee, president and founder of Stop CMV, said Mikulski’s “National Cytomegalovirus Awareness Month” resolution raised awareness about the illness, a congenital viral infection that can lead to birth defects.
“When we first arrived on Capitol Hill, only a tiny handful of staffers had heard about our issue,” she said. “This resolution generated interest from other senators … It got the facts and figures across to them.”
Ed Hayes, the manager of the Victims of Illegal Alien Crime Memorial, said King’s resolution did little to spread the word about his cause. But King appeared to have gained support for his effort.
“I just wish the rest of [Congress] would do something,” Hayes said. “King does as much as anybody on the illegal-alien thing. With no media recognition, I don’t know what else he could do. The media has this invasion totally blacked out.”
Prior to the 20th century, commemorative legislation had little to do with politics. According to a 1999 Congressional Research Service report — the most recent study of this type of legislation — the first commemoratives came in the form of medals to honor certain individuals, causes or groups. In the 19th century, Congress broadened the scope of commemoratives by introducing resolutions recognizing special days for national observance and creating federal holidays.
Up to the mid-20th century, the frequency of these resolutions stayed relatively stable — they never accounted for more than 5 percent of public laws enacted by Congress, according to the CRS report.
However, in the 96th Congress (1979-1980), commemorative legislation increased by 70 percent, according to the CRS report.
“By far most common of these congressional expressions (nearly 80 percent) were requests for the president to issue a special proclamation designating a particular day, week, month or year for commemoration,” the report stated.
In the 99th Congress (1985-86), the height of commemorative proposals, lawmakers sponsored 275 of these resolutions — approximately 41 percent of public laws during that session.
By the 104th Congress (1995-96), lawmakers from both sides of the aisle — feeling that commemorations were distracting Congress from more important matters — decided to limit such legislation. According to the CRS report, the House banned legislation that commemorated “any remembrance, celebration or recognition for any purpose through the designation of a special period of time.”
The House ban was effective for at least the next four years. Members of Congress introduced only 105 commemorations between 1995 and 1999.
In the 112th Congress, however, lawmakers have already introduced 156 commemorations. Approximately two-thirds of the resolutions have come from the Senate. Eight senators — Mikulski, Burr, Crapo, Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) — were responsible for 20 percent of the commemorations. All eight sponsored at least three commemoratives each.
These lawmakers — except for Mikulski — did not respond to requests for comment.
Fifty-two commemoratives have come from the House over the past year and a half. Unlike their colleagues in the Senate, no lawmaker in the lower chamber has proposed more than two commemoratives thus far.
“Day of” resolutions are the most popular, comprising approximately half of the 156 commemorative resolutions. And more than 40 percent of the resolutions designate April, May or September for their commemorations.
Ritchie said he is not surprised that the Senate introduces more resolutions, because House leaders have the power to shut down such proposals, whereas in the Senate, leaders have more difficulty controlling the floor.
He was unsure why the amount of commemorations has returned to pre-1995 levels or why they tend to designate dates in just three months.
Ritchie did say, however, that he understands what might be pushing lawmakers to sponsor so many of these commemorations.
“Members of Congress see it as an inexpensive way to give attention to a good cause or group,” he said.
When asked whether commemorations should be restricted in the Senate, Mikulski demurred, saying, “I haven’t thought about it.”
According to Ritchie, the benefits that the resolutions bring might be a good enough reason for Congress to let the issue rest for the time being.
“[Commemorations] give national attention to good causes,” he said. “Some people see it as cluttering up the schedule and taking up too much time, but the benefits outweigh the detriment.”