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Dropping symbolic votes raises a howl

Interest groups see awareness value

- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 11, 2012

Looking to clear space on the legislative calendar for more important work, House Republicans promised last year to ban purely commemorative legislation, like resolutions honoring sports teams or designating awareness days — but that seemingly innocuous move has left some groups frustrated.

"This is a piece of paper but it's huge in our world of education," said Linda Reinstein, co-founder of the Los Angles-based Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization. After working with the Senate for nearly a decade to pass resolutions calling attention to asbestos, she said a stamp of approval from Congress is an invaluable tool to educate people about its dangers.

"That gives us leverage to raise awareness," she said. "For us, it's huge."

Before the ban, the House typically devoted the first few days each week it was in session to passing symbolic resolutions: Giving official recognition to things like the fabled Battle of Marathon or the 50th anniversary of the Miles Davis classic "Kind of Blue."

But after voters handed them the majority in 2010, Republicans said the practice was silly, wasteful and not what the Founding Fathers intended.

"I do not suspect that Jefferson or Madison ever envisioned Congress honoring the 2,560th anniversary of the birth of Confucius or supporting the designation of national 'Pi' day," Majority Leader Eric Cantor wrote in a letter to colleagues at the time.

The symbolic votes went on as usual in the Senate in 2011, but the lower chamber fell in line with Mr. Cantor: the House usually passes more than 400 resolutions each year, it approved 132 in 2011.

Some feel the House should have drawn a distinction between resolutions that recognize a local accomplishment — like congratulating a sports team — and resolutions that could help an advocacy group further their message or give honor to a U.S. ally.

Frustrated with the situation, Joseph Grano blasted out an email last week after the D.C. City Council officially recognized the 150th anniversary of Italy's unification. President of the Rhodes Tavern-DC Heritage Society, the Italian-American activist was upset that the ban prevented the House from doing the same.

Mr. Grano feels Italy deserves recognition because the country has been a NATO ally for decades, hosts numerous U.S. military bases and sent troops to Afghanistan after 9/11. And the White House, the Capitol and the Supreme Court all bear the influence of Italian architecture, he added.

He feels so strongly about the matter that he picketed outside the Capitol building last fall, he said.

"The House GOP leadership in its attempt to ban frivolous resolutions from coming to a vote has also frustrated attempts to introduce meaningful resolutions — a clear example of throwing out the baby with the bath water," he said.

Despite the ban, some lawmakers have continued to introduce resolutions. Even though they aren't voted on, they're still added to the public record and lawmakers are occasionally allowed to tout them on the House floor.

That's enough to satisfy most constituents back home said Amanda Fitzgerald, director of public policy for the American School Counselor Association (ASCA).

"Truthfully, if you tell the average person out there the House bill has a number but it didn't pass, people don't understand the intricacies of it, people say no, it doesn't really matter," she said. "The same purpose is going through with it."

Ms. Fitzgerald worked with the Senate last year when it passed a resolution designating Feb. 7-11 as National School Counseling Week. She said she also shopped the idea around in the House despite the ban and although it was difficult to gain GOP support, she persuaded Rep. Linda T. Sanchez, California Democrat, to sponsor it.

To Ms. Fitzgerald, the real benefits of a commemorative resolution come in working with congressional staff to draft it, whether or not it is ultimately passed. It gives ASCA key contacts in Washington and an opportunity to influence them on other policy goals. And, it's another notch in the belt, she said.

"I think it means a lot to our members and the actual practitioners out there," she said. "To say that Congress took the time to designate this week and recognize the hard work they do. It's certainly a PR piece for the most part."

But Linda Reinstein sees commemorative resolutions as so important to her mission that she plans to protest the House ban this year.

"I would want someone in the House to recognize that resolutions are critically important to educating Americans and raising awareness," she said. "I would encourage someone in the leadership to overturn the language that was passed."

Others point out that it could be difficult to draw a line on resolutions, permitting Congress to acknowledge some groups and not others, given the thousands of public advocates who lobby Congress each year for attention.

"At least you know everyone is being treated fairly on a level field," said Andrew Kaffes, a consultant for the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association who worked with the Senate last year when it officially recognized the 190th anniversary of Greek independence.

But to Mr. Grano, it was silly for the House to ban itself from recognizing events in which the U.S. government played a major role. He pointed to a resolution recognizing Arizona's centennial on Feb. 14. While Arizona Republican John McCain successfully guided it through the Senate, a similar resolution predictably stalled in the House.

"How silly for the House to make a rule that prevents the Congress from officially recognizing that the Congress itself created the state of Arizona a hundred years ago. But, that's where they find themselves," he said.

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