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To-do list aside, Congress tackles Confucius, National Pi Day

By Kristi Keck, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • This session of Congress has taken up hundreds of "commemorative" resolutions
  • Marking Confucius' 2,560th birthday was the "height of silliness," Rep. Campbell says
  • The purpose? "It's getting some good will," congressional historian says
  • Have a problem with it? Don't voice your concerns on "Complaint Free Wednesday"
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(CNN) -- It was supposed to be an aggressive agenda -- an agenda of change, some promised -- intended to right the economy, overhaul health care and reform immigration policy.

Declaring National Pi Day and honoring Confucius' birthday, then, might seem like odd tasks for the 111th Congress.

While lawmakers continue to wrangle over the hot-button issues expected to dominate this session's legislative agenda, pet resolutions known as "commemoratives" have seen greater success navigating the House and Senate.

Until about 1980, commemorative legislation never topped 10 percent of all public laws. But under the 96th-103rd sessions, commemoratives averaged 30 percent of all public laws the president signed, according to the Congressional Research Service.

In 1995, after taking control of the House for the first time in 40 years, Republicans changed the rules, cracking down on bills criticized as a waste of lawmakers' time.

"I remember the discussion -- how do we get rid of some of this huge number of commemoratives?" said Ilona Nickels, a congressional analyst and lecturer who helped redraft some of the House rules. "The answer is you make it harder."

The House established strict eligibility criteria for commemoratives and banned bills that created special days, weeks or months because they accounted for about 75 percent of the commemorative legislation.

Commemoratives are now handled as simple resolutions, meaning they don't require approval from both chambers and or the president's signature.

The process is different in the Senate. There are no binding rules, but the guidelines dictate that resolutions can't commemorate commercial enterprises, products or living people.

If it was 2,500 or something -- maybe. But 2,560? What the heck is that?
--Rep. John Campbell, on a resolution to honor the anniversary of Confucius' birth

As with any rule, though, there are always exceptions. The Senate, for example, just adopted a resolution commemorating Sen. Robert Byrd, who recently became the longest-serving senator. And in the House -- where rules ban anything that "establishes or expresses a commemoration" -- congressmen still introduced resolutions supporting a "National Day of the Cowboy" and "National Dairy Month."

How? Well, instead of "commemorating" or designating a day or time period, lawmakers in the House use language like "support the ideals of" or "support the designation of." If it's a day they want to honor, they omit the actual day and say simply that the House has "resolved" to honor the cause.

After the House changed its rules in 1995, the number of commemoratives dropped drastically, but in the years since, the resolutions have crept back up.

"That's most of the floor time we've been spending of late is on that," said Rep. John Campbell, R-California.

This year, Congress has taken up more than 300 commemorative resolutions, according to a count using THOMAS, the Library of Congress legislative Web site.

The one that most befuddles Campbell is a resolution last month honoring Confucius 2,560th birthday, which he called "the height of silliness."

"He'd been dead for over 2,000 years. If it was 2,500 or something -- maybe. But 2,560? What the heck is that?" Campbell said.

Most commemoratives sail through Congress unanimously, but the Confucius resolution drew some friction. Forty-seven members of the House voted against it and 13, including Campbell, voted present. The reason for the opposition? "We just said, 'Hey, this is really dumb,' " Campbell said.

Another contentious commemorative was a resolution congratulating the New York Yankees on their World Series win. Rep. Eliot Engel, a Democrat from the Bronx, donned a Yankees cap as a "symbol of unity," much to the chagrin of Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah.

"While the Democrats want to talk baseball, we want to talk about health care," Chaffetz said.

Rep. José Serrano, D-New York, jumped to his colleague's defense."I am positive that there is not a single American in this country, except for some in this House, who would think that what we are doing today is wrong," he said.

Honoring birthdays and baseball titles may seem inconsequential with so much pressing business in the nation, but Norman Ornstein, a congressional historian with the American Enterprise Institute, said the sponsors are often seeking "good will."

"It's frankly no great surprise because it's such an easy way to gain a little approval from people without having to spend any money. It's very tempting to commemorate events or recognize individuals or groups. They like it; they're honored by it. And it's not like an earmark," he said, referring to funding of legislators' pet projects, often called "pork barrel" spending..

Commemoratives are also useful for nonprofits, Nickels says, because designations such as "National Autism Awareness Month" (April) can help drive fundraising initiatives.

While complaining that Congress spends too much time on commemoratives, Campbell is the first to concede that they are indeed tempting. He sponsored a resolution last summer congratulating the University of California-Irvine men's volleyball team for winning the 2009 national championship.

"I'm as guilty as some others," he said.

He blames peer pressure and said if you don't secure a congressional resolution to honor such things people ask, "Why didn't you? Everybody else did."

This year, lawmakers in the House and Senate have sponsored dozens of resolutions to congratulate sports teams, from the Chula Vista Park View Little League team to Wichita State University's bowling teams.

Though voters generally had loftier aspirations for their elected officials than supporting "National STD Awareness Month," Ornstein says commemoratives are generally harmless.

"I think 99.9 percent of voters don't know and don't care," he said.

The measures don't take up much of lawmakers' time since the staff handles most of the legwork, Ornstein said.

While some time and resources are devoted to them, Nickels notes that it is nothing inordinate. "All legislation -- even the hundreds and hundreds of bills that get introduced and don't make it to law cost some money," she said. "I don't think we can really single this category out."

Ornstein said that, commemoratives aside, he believes the 111th session of Congress has been productive in its first year. He points to the stimulus bill, the expansion of the children's health insurance program and the Lilly Ledbetter Act as examples.

"If they didn't do it, it wouldn't bother me one iota, but that they do do it doesn't bother me particularly either," he said.

If commemorative resolutions bother you, you can take it up with your senator or representative, or a member of their staff. Just wait until after Turkey Day -- there's a proposal to observe "Complaint Free Wednesday" on the day before Thanksgiving.