No more ‘attaboys’ from Congress

WASHINGTON–When the University of Connecticut’s Huskies won the 2010 NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament earlier this year, Rep. Joe Courtney made sure the team’s triumph didn’t go unnoticed in Washington.

The basketball team “stands as a history-making organization, with 78 straight wins,” Courtney, a 2nd District Democrat, said in a speech on the House floor in April. “They’re now only 9 wins short of catching the record by the UCLA men’s basketball team… back in the 1960s.”

Courtney closed his remarks by urging his colleagues to approve a House resolution he’d sponsored congratulating the Huskies on their victory –a measure that sailed through the chamber by a voice vote.

But the team won’t get any such hip-hip-hoorays from Congress next year, even if they win the 2011 tournament.

When Republicans take control of the House in January, they have vowed to ban votes on commemorative or congratulatory resolutions, which are nonbinding and generally pass with overwhelming support.

House GOP leaders say such feel-good measures are a waste of time and a distraction from the country’s more pressing business.

“Most of us ran for Congress because we wanted to tackle the big problems facing our nation,” Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., the incoming House Majority Leader, wrote in an open letter to newly-elected Republicans.  “We came to Washington to eliminate the deficit, to tear down barriers to job creation, and to reform a government that has grown out of touch with the governed.”

“… And I know none of us ran with the idea that we should go to Washington to congratulate a collegiate basketball team for having a good season–or feel obligated that we needed to do so–even if we happened to be a fan,” Cantor wrote.

That could put a serious damper on the legislative activity of Connecticut’s congressional delegation. To be sure, they have all sponsored serious legislation that deals with the issues Cantor enumerated, from job creation to federal spending.

But they’ve also introduced plenty of symbolic resolutions to mark anniversaries, spotlight interest groups in their districts, or just give a pat on the back to folks back home.

Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, sponsored a measure calling on the House to support “Jazz Appreciation Month” and to mark April 25th as “Willis Conover Day,” honoring a widely-known jazz producer and broadcaster. He also pushed a nonbinding measure putting the House on record against “severe” changes to Social Security.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, introduced four House resolutions in this Congress, including one supporting the “goals and ideals” of Global Youth Service Day and another congratulating the Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau on its 90th anniversary.

Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District, sponsored a measure to honor the life of author Frank McCourt (best known for his book “Angela’s Ashes), along with a proposal to support National Day to Prevent Teen Pregnancy and another urging public schools to display copies of the Constitution, among other historical documents.

Courtney is among the most prolific in the delegation when it comes to commemorative resolutions. Among other measures, he has twice called on his colleagues to demonstrate congressional support for “National Dairy Month,” in 2009 and again this year.

Many of Connecticut’s 150 or so dairy farms are in Courtney’s district, and he’s been an avid proponent of their interests.

“Local dairy farms are an important part of our communities’ heritage and we must provide the appropriate assistance and support they need to continue to function into the future,” Courtney said in a statement about the resolution. “This resolution recognizes the difficult and important work of our dairy farmers, and urges all Americans to rededicate themselves to supporting them.”

The measure noted that the diary industry produces more than 170 billion pounds of milk each year and that dairy products are “an important source of calcium and… an integral part of a healthy diet for both children and adults.”

Who could disagree with that? It passed 359-to-0.

Still, Courtney says he’s more than happy to go along with the new GOP rules.

“I’m all for that,” Courtney said. “If the system is there, I’m going to be out there like everyone else, pitching my district.” But, he said, “we waste a lot of time” on such votes. “And nobody notices at home, so I’ve give [Republicans] great kudos for that.”

Other delegation members sharply disagreed.

“I think it’s small-minded and mean-spirited,” Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, said of the GOP’s proposed resolution ban.

“The truth is, nobody devotes a whole lot of time to parsing and analyzing resolutions,” Himes said. “And I think they mean a lot to veterans’ groups, to universities, to people who’ve really distinguished themselves.”

He said particularly during these tough times, such small gestures can mean a lot.

“It just seems that, at a time when a lot of groups in America maybe could use an ‘attaboy,’ to say ‘No, we’re not going to do that anymore’ seems really Scrooge-like, if I might say, in this season.”

Himes has sponsored two resolutions this term. One recognized the 75th anniversary of the Federal Credit Union Act and the “vibrant community that was created as a result.” The other was more serious, putting Congress on record that any high-level member of the Iranian government should not be given a travel visa to the U.S.

“It’s very good for the Iranian regime to know that the U.S. Congress is watching their activities very closely,” Himes said of the latter measure.

“That resolution and a lot of others are speaking with the voice of the United States government. And when it comes to condemning authoritarian behavior [or] encouraging good behavior abroad, it’s the only voice we have,” he added, noting Congress’ limited purview over American foreign policy.

Himes said he hopes the new Republican leadership will make a distinction between those more serious measures and the celebratory proposals congratulating sports teams and the like.

Murphy said he doesn’t see any harm in devoting a little bit of House floor time to nonbinding resolutions, but he won’t miss them either.

Resolutions are a nice way to “give special recognition to local priorities or accomplishments,” Murphy said. “But if doing away with them means more time for substantive legislative work, I won’t lose any sleep over it.”

He said the idea for his resolution calling on public elementary and secondary schools to display copies of the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights came from a constituent.

The voter, who Murphy described as a “die-hard Republican, Tea Party supporter,” talked to the congressman about how important it is for students to have more familiarity with this country’s founding documents. “I thought it was a good idea,” Murphy said. “It has some meaning, and when the House of Representatives speaks with one voice, people do listen.”

Murphy also noted that, though such proposals don’t carry the weight of law, they can create an uproar nonetheless. He learned that a couple of years ago, when he voted against a resolution congratulating the Yankees on their World Series Win. (He’s an avid Red Sox fan and couldn’t bring himself to vote yes.)

“My vote against the Yankees resolution attracted more attention than 95 percent of my other votes that I’ve cast in the House,” Murphy said.

Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said the proposed ban on resolutions is much a-do about nothing.

The real question, he said, is whether Cantor and other leaders will actually make more time and create a better framework for substantive debate.

Republican leaders “have sharply curtailed the number of days that the House is scheduled to be in session [next year] and yet promised much fuller debate and more amendments on more bills,” he said. “How you pull those things together, while saving a small amount of time on commemorative resolutions, is a real challenge.”