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Congress' fluffy measures keep constituents happy

by Billy House Sunday, Aug. 27, 2006 at 7:50 AM

Isn't unneeded, unnessary government great at wasting our money to get people re-elected?

WASHINGTON - Did Congress this year really need to recognize the history and achievements of the curling community of Bemidji, Minn.?

Was the 30th anniversary of the victory of California winemakers at the 1976 Paris Wine Testing deserving of special U.S. House and Senate attention?

And how essential was it for federal lawmakers to pay homage to the role of air-conditioning in modern American life by declaring a special "National Indoor Comfort Week"?

These are just a few examples of lawmakers doing one of the things they do best: proposing and passing hundreds of feel-good resolutions and other non-binding commemorative measures.

"If you think about the amount of time Congress spends on these resolutions, as opposed to substantive legislation, it's clear why so little gets done in Washington," said Alex Knott, political editor of the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington, D.C.-based good-government group.

Congressional records show there have been at least 600 of these commemorative resolutions passed or proposed so far this session.

Such measures allow lawmakers not only to share with their constituents in the glee of a local team winning a championship, but also in the sorrow over the death of a home-grown celebrity such as Johnny Carson or a civil rights icon such as Rosa Parks.

In some cases, the measures are pushed by the same special-interest groups who also donate money to the sponsoring lawmakers' campaigns. Typically, the House and Senate approve such measures by unanimous consent, meaning there is no debate. But for the sponsoring senator or congressman, these resolutions go a long way back home.

"If people really want to understand why congressional incumbents are so difficult to beat," said Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political-science professor and an expert on Congress, "this is one of the reasons.

"It's their ability to use these non-binding resolutions and commemorations to ingratiate themselves with groups, usually constituents in their states."

Justifying the resolutions

Rep. Mike Thompson, R-Calif., needed no prodding in May when he introduced a resolution to recognize the anniversary of the victory of United States winemakers at the 1976 Paris Wine Tasting, which had pitted the premier wines of California and France in a blind tasting competition. His resolution (HCR 399) was passed.

Anne Warden, a spokeswoman in Thompson's office, explained that the congressman believed the measure was important for his constituents and state because it had marked a "watershed for California wines," heralding their prominence and marketability. She also noted that Thompson owns a small vineyard and is co-chairman of the congressional wine caucus.

Thompson's resolution may indeed have been self-inspired. But his congressional efforts overall on behalf of the California wine industry have not gone unrecognized. Federal Election Commission records show he's tops among all lawmakers in the amount of donations (,000) his re-election campaign coffers have received this session from the political arm of the Wine Institute, an association of California wineries.

"National Indoor Comfort Week" was designated by Congress for April 17-23 last year after a resolution (HR 130) was introduced on March 1, 2005, and then passed the next month in the House by Rep. Donald Manzullo, R-Ill., chairman of the House Small Business Committee.

The idea came out of a meeting between Manzullo staffers and representatives of the Air Conditioning Contractors of America.

The same month the resolution was introduced, the group's political-action committee gave ,500 to Manzullo's re-election coffers, according to FEC records. But Manzullo spokesman Rich Carter said there was no connection and pointed out that the same group had donated to the congressman's campaign committee before, and has since.

A spokesman for the association also said there was no tie-in.

Easy pleasers

Other resolutions are simply can't-go-wrong crowd pleasers back at home.

For instance, Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., joined with Senate co-sponsor Mark Dayton, D-Minn., in introducing and getting passed on March 9 a resolution (SR 397) recognizing the sport of curling, a tradition that has been fostered over generations by the community of Bemidji, Minn. The city that month hosted the U.S. World Team Trials.

Copies of the official congressional resolution were sent to Bemidji and the Bemidji Curling Club.

Some of the resolutions do touch on more-serious topics.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has a long scar on the left side of his face as a reminder of his battles with melanoma, a potentially fatal form of skin cancer, passed a resolution in June 2005 (SR 167) recognizing the importance of sun safety. A group calling itself the "Sun Safety Alliance," which includes the National Association of Chain Drug Stores and Coppertone, had pushed for that measure.

The cost to taxpayers of all these measures is hard to estimate.

A former aide to Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., who had been researching that question three years ago, obtained from the Congressional Research Service a memo stating: "It is difficult, if not impossible, to accurately calculate the cost of introducing or passing a piece of legislation, because it is so difficult to quantify staff time, utility costs, Capitol security costs, costs of printing floor discussions about the bill in the (Congressional) Record, and the costs of putting the individual piece of legislation on the Internet."

One CRS document included an estimate that the 1990 costs of commemorative legislation were as high as million a year. But the research service told Franks' office that those 1990 numbers "can't really be compared to today."

Knott, of the Center for Public Integrity, recalled that starting in 1995, the House had changed its rules to ban new commemorative proposals.

But they've continued to occur as lawmakers push them through procedural maneuvers, including the ability to suspend their own rules on almost anything.

"A lot of it is just filler to say they are doing something when they aren't addressing more important things like immigration reform or health care," said David Mark, a political analyst and former editor of Campaigns & Elections magazine.

Reach the reporter at billy.house@arizonarepublic.com or 1-(202)-906-8136.

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