With little fanfare earlier this month, the House passed a commending resolution recognizing the University of Wisconsin's football team for making it to the Rose Bowl. But if the team wins, it's likely to have to go without a pat on the back from the country's 435 House members — at least as far as official recognition goes.
House Republicans, who take control of the chamber in January, are planning a rules change that would end most commending resolutions, and in the process could slice down much of the chamber's workload — with the goal, the GOP said, of letting lawmakers focus on the big issues during the key work hours.
"These are not negative things. These are great people, great institutions, but if indeed you're after better time management and you want to compress votes … it is important you take away this kind of stuff," said Rep. Rob Bishop, Utah Republican, who served as chairman of a working group on new rules for the House and the Republican Conference.
Out would be legislation such as H. Res. 1767, the official name for the measure that congratulated the Wisconsin Badgers on their 11-1 season and Rose Bowl bid. Also on the chopping block would be commendations for the 100th anniversary of Catholic Charities or the 175th birthday of Mark Twain — both of which passed just hours before the Wisconsin football resolution, which was the last to pass under the old rules.
The changes are part of a new schedule incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, designed to return power to rank-and-file members and streamline legislative business to make it more predictable — and meaningful.
That means a revamped schedule with more time spent back in districts listening to constituents in the middle of big debates and more time spent on committee work in the mornings, voting on floor items in the afternoon, and free by late evening.
The schedule has come under fire from some Democrats and Republicans who say Republicans will be spending less time in Washington, which means less time voting on big issues.
"I promised my constituents I would go to Capitol Hill and work every day to help solve these problems," said Rep.-elect Allen West, Florida Republican. "I hope that the leadership, if it becomes clear that we are not meeting the promise we made to the American people, will modify the schedule."
But Republican leaders counter that much of the time Congress has spent in session in recent years hasn't been devoted to tackling big issues, but rather finding busywork to keep members in town.
Mr. Bishop said that under the old rules, a congressional committee once came to him and urged him to sponsor a resolution commending a group's 120th anniversary. He suggested it might make sense to wait another five years, but the committee said it needed the resolution.
"It is very clear that a lot of committees were told, 'We need to work five days a week, and we don't have enough for five days a week, so we need to find stuff to bring to the floor,'" Mr. Bishop said.
Unlike the Senate, where such resolutions usually pass without consuming any floor time, the House usually subjects them to either a full or abbreviated debate.
That abbreviated process requires a two-thirds vote to succeed and limits debate to 40 minutes. Republican staffers said an analysis done over the summer found that more than half of all bills passed under the abbreviated process in 2010 were commending resolutions.
The Wisconsin resolution was sponsored by Rep. Tammy Baldwin, Wisconsin Democrat, whose district includes the University of Wisconsin at Madison and who earned a law degree from the school. During the 10-minute floor debate, she divided her time between praising the team's big victories over Ohio State University and the University of Iowa — "an inspiring comeback" — and pointing to key players, coaches and administrators.
Miss Baldwin's office said she was traveling and couldn't be reached for comment on securing the last commending resolution of the 111th Congress.
Republicans said there still will be chances next year to praise accomplishments during the time offered at the beginning of the legislative day for one-minute speeches.
It's rare, but the resolutions have been occasions for partisan fights in the past.
In March, Republicans led a revolt and defeated a seemingly innocuous resolution to recognize National Public Works Week. Democrats said the GOP was angered by the resolution's praise of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which Republicans argue has been a failure, not a success.
Then-Rep. James L. Oberstar, Minnesota Democrat, who chaired the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and had sponsored a similar resolution the previous year, said the defeat was "an insult to thousands of public-works professionals."
One area that won't be touched by the new rules is the practice of naming post offices. Those actually require a change in federal law, and lawmakers view them as special plums to be doled out.
In the 111th Congress, 71 post office buildings were renamed, including one in Portland, Ore., in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.; one in San Diego after Cesar Chavez; and one in Indiana, Pa., for actor Jimmy Stewart. All told, they accounted for nearly 20 percent of the bills presented to President Obama over the past two years.
Still, the 71 post offices renamed represented a drop from the 109 post offices named in the previous Congress.
Mr. Bishop quipped that there is an eventual ceiling on those resolutions, too, once all of the tens of thousands of post offices in the country have been named.
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