For all the talk of congressional dysfunction, there is a bit of good news: Congress has spent less of its valuable time passing “commemorative” legislation. For this development, we can thank Republicans and leaders in the U.S. House.
Last week, the New York Times’ Derek Willis reported that this Congress has enacted far fewer bills to name post offices than its recent predecessors. The 110th Congress (2007-2009) set the record, passing a whopping 109 of these laws. With hardly any time left on the clock, the 113th Congress has renamed only 23 post offices. (At the moment, 15 bills have been signed into law and another eight post office naming bills await the President’s signature.)
Commemorative legislation, a Congressional Research Service report explains, comes in many forms:
- Naming post offices, other federal buildings and other federal structures
- Creating postage stamps
- Issuing commemorative coins
- Bestowing congressional gold medals
- Establishing monuments and memorials
- Creating commemorative commissions and observances
- Establishing federal holidays
- Requesting presidential proclamations
Additionally, Congress issues charters. These honorific documents of incorporation typically do nothing more than slap an “endorsed by Congress” sticker on favorite nonprofit organizations.
The 113th Congress, to its credit, has passed only a small number of commemorative bills (seen in Table 1 below). The 46 commemorative bills enacted amount to 21 percent of the 218 total bills enacted in the last two years. To put this number in perspective, in recent Congresses, post office naming legislation alone constituted 20 percent of the total bills enacted. In the 113th Congress, postal naming bills amount to only 10.5 percent of the bills sent to the president (thus far).
Those who love these sorts of bills talk up their beneficence: commemorative legislation is nice because it honors someone, something or some place. It’s legislation that a party-torn Congress can work together to pass, and which might serve as the basis for collaboration on substantive policy-making.
Or maybe commemorative legislation usually is little more than an attempt to win votes back home. Regardless, commemorative legislation comes with significant costs: time and man-hours.
How much? Nobody knows, because the calculation of cost per bill enacted is so complex. But to get a sense of the magnitude, consider a typical post office naming bill. Should a member decide he or she wants to name a post office, one of his or her staffers must meet with legislative attorneys to draft the bill; do the research to choose a post office that is appropriate (preferably not one soon to be closed); get other representatives and senators from one’s home state to cosponsor the legislation; and work with the House and Senate committees of jurisdiction to get buy-in for the bill.
Then the legislation needs to be formally introduced into both chambers, entered into Congress.gov and CRS will need to write a bill digest. CRS librarians also may be asked by Congress to research the background of the individual for whom the post office is being named, so as to ensure he or she is not a lobbyist or disreputable figure. Then the legislation must be scheduled for action by both chambers (including the committees), voted upon, finalized and delivered to the president’s desk, after which it gets printed by the Government Printing Office and added to the U.S. Statutes-at-Large.
Thereafter comes the work of issuing self-congratulatory press releases by the bill’s sponsors, and actual implementation (whatever there is). And let’s not forget that added to all of this is that CRS has to devote the valuable time of Ph.D.s to writing reports about these types of bills and coaching Congress through the process.
In recognition that time was short and commemorations were not a high-utility use of it, Republicans, particularly in the House, cracked down on them. The leadership of the House made it clear that a 20-year old rule (Rule 28) curbing commemorative legislation would actually be enforced. Additionally, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, to which post office naming bills are referred, adopted a rule stating:
The consideration of bills designating facilities of the United States Postal Service shall be conducted so as to minimize the time spent on such matters by the committee and the House of Representatives.
The committee, which spent an enormous amount of time in recent years working on postal legislation, saw little sense in spending its precious time on naming bills. The majority also likely sought to exert a little pressure on members to get behind their postal reform bill by going slow on moving post office naming bills. (No postal reform was enacted, alas.)
Critics, especially on the left, tar this Congress for not passing as many bills as other Congresses. Congressional productivity, plainly, should not be measured by legislative enactments alone. The institution has duties beyond that, like oversight. And when it comes to costly and mostly pointless commemorative legislation, passing fewer bills is a good thing.
Let’s hope the 114th Congress continues the trend. With the debt skyrocketing and the economy limping along, our nation’s highest legislature has better uses for its time.