House, Senate Sweat the Small Stuff
Members of Congress Love a Good Resolution;
Watermelons and Undertakers Fit the Bill
By ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON
August 19, 2008; Page A1
WASHINGTON -- The 110th Congress, whose term officially ends in January, hasn't passed any spending bills or attacked high gasoline prices. But it has used its powers to celebrate watermelons and to decree the origins of the word "baseball."
Barring a burst of legislative activity after Labor Day, this group of 535 men and women will have accomplished a rare feat. In two decades of record keeping, no sitting Congress has passed fewer public laws at this point in the session -- 294 so far -- than this one. That's not to say they've been idle. On the flip side, no Congress in the same 20 years has been so prolific when it comes to proposing resolutions -- more than 1,900, according to a tally by the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense.
With the mostly symbolic measures, Congress has saluted such milestones as the Idaho Potato Commission's 70th anniversary and recognized soil as an "essential natural resource." As legislation on gasoline prices, tax fixes and predatory lending languish, Congress has designated May 5-9 as National Substitute Teacher Recognition Week, and set July 28 as the Day of the American Cowboy.
The resolutions, which generally don't carry the force of law, can originate in either the House or Senate. However, some types of resolutions establish the federal budget, authorize the president to go to war, or condemn actions such as the genocide in Darfur. Even among the 294 laws passed thus far, many were symbolic in nature. Many of the post offices named by this Congress honor servicemen and -women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the 435-member House, fully one-quarter of the workweek is typically devoted to debating and passing symbolic measures.
Democratic Rep. Charlie Wilson of Ohio, a fourth-generation undertaker, sponsored a National Funeral Director and Mortician Recognition Day. Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss, whose home state of Georgia has 24,000 acres planted in watermelon, pushed a resolution establishing July as National Watermelon Month.
"As Mark Twain once said, 'When one has tasted watermelon he knows what the angels eat.' I encourage my colleagues to join me in acknowledging the wisdom of Mark Twain by supporting this resolution," Sen. Chambliss said on the Senate floor. The only problem: July is about 14 days late for a Watermelon Month. The crops come in in mid June.
Democrats say the 294 public laws represent a solid record of achievement. Since the party took control of Congress in 2007, they've led passage of the largest expansion in college aid in 60 years, increased the minimum wage for the first time in a decade, and extended unemployment benefits. They passed the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission.
Congress has passed a $168 billion economic-stimulus package, a housing-rescue package providing as much as $300 billion to refinance mortgages for people in danger of losing their homes, and the most sweeping product-safety legislation in a generation.
"We also recognize that we have more to do, and we will do so, both in the remaining weeks of this year's Congress and next year when we will have expanded Democratic majorities in the House and the Senate, working with President Barack Obama," says Brendan Daly, spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California.
Congress, which won't return to session until September, has yet to pass any 2009 appropriations bills, even though funding the federal budget is its official function. Before leaving town for summer break in August, lawmakers failed to establish August as Heat Stroke Awareness Month, blowing the deadline to make it official.
When Democrats won control of Congress in 2006, Republicans were eager to tar them as "do nothing," an echo of Democrat Harry Truman's successful 1948 presidential campaign during which he railed against the "Do Nothing Congress" led by Republicans.
"The Democrats in charge of this Congress have been heavy on fluff and light on substance," says Republican leader Rep. John Boehner of Ohio. "Resolutions are fine but why aren't we also passing legislation to lower gas prices? What about health-care reform and runaway entitlement spending?"
In fact, the second-fewest number of public laws passed over the 20-year review was during the 104th Congress -- when Republicans were newly in control, with a Democratic president. Resolutions, however, are usually popular on both sides of the aisle.
Critics still complain that Congress uses resolutions to pad its legislative record.
"Resolutions are a perpetual motion machine," says Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. "Not only do you create Heat Stroke Awareness Month, every year after that you recognize the importance of Heat Stroke Awareness Month. You never move on to substantive legislation."
Occasionally, resolutions stir debate that veers close to substance. In late June, House members gathered on the floor to debate a resolution establishing Pittsfield, Mass., once and for all, as home to the earliest known reference to the word "baseball."
Democratic Rep. John Olver of Massachusetts, the bill's author, rose to stake Pittsfield's claim, based on the recent discovery of a 1791 Pittsfield law banning "Wicket, Cricket, Baseball, Football, Cat, Fives or any other game or games with balls" near the town's new meetinghouse.
"Even back in 1791, youths were already breaking windows playing America's favorite national pastime," Rep. Olver said. "With that, the first mention of baseball was penned into history."
Rep. Virginia Foxx, Republican of North Carolina whose resolution recognizing America's Christmas-tree industry remains mired in committee, said that "the origins of baseball [have] been the subject of debate and controversy." Yet she agreed that the "Broken Window Bylaw" gave Pittsfield the honor.