- Associated Press - Sunday, July 25, 2010

House Democrats and Republicans have put aside their differences this year to honor the likes of golfer Phil Mickelson, the Chicago Blackhawks hockey team, NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson and the Penn State women’s volleyball team.

But when it came time last week to memorialize the start of the 142nd season of the Saratoga racecourse in New York, one freshman lawmaker decided that he’d had enough.

“It’s an absolute embarrassment,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Utah Republican, announcing on the House floor a vow to vote against all future sports resolutions.

He worried that there were children in the visitors gallery who would go back home and, asked whether Congress was talking about war or debt, reply: “Oh no, they were honoring a racecourse.”

“It’s terribly frustrating,” Mr. Chaffetz said.

The freshman Republican appeared to win a few converts: The bill passed by a 396-14 vote. The number of “no” votes was high for the kinds of commemorative resolutions that often pass unanimously.

Every week, the House spends a couple of days churning out such bills. Beyond honoring sports achievements, they name post offices, praise armed service members, mourn distinguished people who’ve died and recognize historic anniversaries. This year, the House has come together to support national pollinator week, national dairy month and national train day.

Mr. Chaffetz, in an interview, said he has nothing against recognizing worthwhile causes such as breast cancer awareness, “but there are too many of them and they’re just too frivolous.” He said he drew the line at sports bills because athletes already get “more than their fair share of accolades.”

Mr. Chaffetz gained attention earlier this year when he confronted President Obama at a Republican retreat in Baltimore. He accused Mr. Obama of breaking promises to block lobbyists from administration jobs and to get rid of special-project spending.

He said the resolutions are proof that Democrats are just filling time because of their inability to tackle the larger issues facing the nation.

Rep. Jason Altmire, a Pennsylvania Democrat who voted against the racetrack bill, had a more benign interpretation. He said these minor bills serve as a way to get lawmakers to the House floor so they can talk with one another and their party leaders.

Still, he said, “They can get out of hand.”

He noted a vote last year commemorating the 2,560th anniversary of the birth of Confucius. He said his personal rule was to vote only for sports resolutions honoring teams that had won championships.

Mr. Chaffetz drew a rebuke from the Democrat managing the racetrack bill, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton of the District of Columbia. “It ill behooves the other side to trivialize a bill by a member,” she said.

She recalled that Mr. Chaffetz had co-sponsored a resolution commending the Real Salt Lake soccer club — from his home state of Utah — for winning the 2009 Major League Soccer Cup.

Mr. Chaffetz acknowledged backing sports resolutions before realizing that they were a waste of time. As a new lawmaker, he said, “I made some mistakes.”

Mr. Chaffetz and Mr. Altmire agreed that the House should look for a better way to pay tribute to lawmakers’ hometown sports heroes, such as having a big bill at the end of the year for all the sports resolutions.

The Senate also passes hundreds of minor resolutions every year, but almost always without debate or roll-call votes.

The House procedure known as the “suspension calendar,” which is now used to quickly debate and approve matters such as post office namings, dates back to at least 1822. House historian Fred Beuttler noted that in 1978 the House honored Bob Hope on his 75th birthday with both a resolution and a rendition of “Happy Birthday.”

But Mr. Beuttler said he was surprised to find that it has been only about a dozen years since congratulatory resolutions, which in the past concentrated on praising foreign countries, took to praising athletes.