Honorary bills persist despite GOP vow

House Republicans swept into the majority pledging to do away with the commemorative resolutions that clogged up the floor schedule in recent years, but for one evening on Monday, honorary bills filled the docket once again.

Lawmakers approved two Congressional Gold Medals, debated a third and discussed minting a coin in honor of Mark Twain.  

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The only living person among the honorees was golf legend Jack Nicklaus, a personal friend of Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), himself an avid golfer. Nicklaus grew up in Boehner’s home state of Ohio, and in 2002, he testified before Boehner’s Education and Workforce Committee on the “First Tee” program aimed at promoting values in young people through golf.

The House passed a bill awarding a medal to Nicklaus in a 373-4 vote. All of the “no” votes came from Republicans.

Democratic Rep. Joe Baca (Calif.) spearheaded the honor for Nicklaus and recruited Rep. Tom Rooney (Fla.) as a Republican co-sponsor. Rooney went to school with Nicklaus’s children in Florida and remains friends with his family.

“To me, he was Mr. Nicklaus, not Jack,” Rooney said in a phone interview Monday. “He was very active in our schools.”

Rooney said he has played golf with Nicklaus, and predictably, the Golden Bear, who holds a record 18 major tournament victories, gives him strokes in their matches. The congressman now plays to a 12 handicap, he said, about four strokes worse than when he entered the House in 2009. “This job doesn’t do much for your golf game,” he quipped.

Nicklaus contributed $500 to Rooney’s campaign in 2011, federal records show.

In a statement, Baca said he was honoring Nicklaus “for his leadership, his sportsmanship and his great record of giving back through philanthropy.”

He noted the millions of dollars that Nicklaus raised for charity, and thanked Rooney and members of the Ohio delegation for pushing the bill forward.

Nicklaus received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005. Under Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in 2009, the House awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to Nicklaus’s longtime rival, Arnold Palmer.

In a statement Monday, Nicklaus, 72, called the gold medal “one of the most special recognitions I have ever received.”

“In looking back at my professional career, I hope my life is measured by something other than wins, statistics and records,” he said. “A legacy is about how you used the talent and time that God gave you to leave this world in a better place than when you arrived. So in some small way, I hope I have used the game of golf, my career and my life to do that.”

The other Congressional Gold Medal the House awarded Monday was a  posthumous honor for Raoul Wallenberg, who helped shelter Jews during the Holocaust. Lawmakers also debated a medal for Lena Horne, the celebrated singer and civil-rights activist who died in 2010.

Technically, the bills do not violate the Republican ban on strictly commemorative measures, such as resolutions congratulating sports teams, because, as one leadership aide put it, they “actually do something.”

A GOP leadership aide said lawmakers made an exception to conference rules for the three Congressional Gold Medals on Monday because they stipulate that a maximum of two such medals are awarded each year.

The House will return to more substantive legislation later this week, when it takes up an extension of highway program funding and a tax cut for small businesses.