Partisan Rancor Flares in Debate To Rename National Airport
By Alan K. Ota, CQ Staff Writer
Congress put aside weighty matters of state -- the budget, Iraq, the
Asian financial crisis -- to name the Ronald Reagan Washington National
Airport on Feb. 5, a day before the former president's 87th birthday.
Democrats and Republicans wished Reagan the best, but only after a
bruising battle over the airport. The House cleared the bill by voice vote
Feb. 5. President Clinton signed the measure on Reagan's birthday, saying,
"He is in our thoughts and prayers."
The bipartisan spirit of Clinton's birthday greetings followed long
debate in which lawmakers pondered the question: To name or not to name?
The Senate passed the airport bill (S1575) by a vote of 76-22 on Feb.
4. The House approved another version (HR2625) the same day, 240-186, and
moved quickly to adopt the Senate's slightly different version Feb. 5.
For many Republicans, the campaign provided a chance to pay homage one
more time to Reagan, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., said renaming the airport was an
appropriate tribute for the man who gave America "freedom from fear, from
insecurity, and finally from the emotional, physical and financial costs of
the Cold War."
As sweet as the victory was for Republicans, it was a bitter loss for
some Democrats who tried to block the bill. They saw the proposal as a
blatant political act by Republicans.
"This was clearly part of a conservative ideological agenda. It was
driven by conservative talk show hosts. The goal was to turn the airport
into a political billboard to greet visitors to Washington," said Rep.
James L. Oberstar, D-Minn., who led the opposition.
One More for "The Gipper"
The Reagan Legacy Project of the
Americans for Tax Reform, a conservative group, launched the airport
campaign last year as part of a wider effort to put his name on buildings
and his face on Mount Rushmore.
Michael Reagan, the former president's son, joined the final push at a
news conference with Gingrich on Feb. 4, urging Congress to "win just one
more for the Gipper."
Some Democrats offered to name practically anything else for Reagan
except that airport, suggesting the Pentagon or Dulles International
Airport. Others suggested Reagan had been honored enough with a new office
building and a new Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, both of which carry his
Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi cleared the way for
a vote by agreeing to consider a bill to reform the Internal Revenue
Service (HR2676) by March 30.
In floor debate in both chambers, Democrats criticized the proposal for
going against the wishes of local officials and ending the identification
of the airport with the nation's first president, who lived nearby at Mount
Vernon. They even questioned the $60,000 cost of new signs, to which
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., replied by reading from a letter from a C-SPAN
viewer who offered to foot the bill.
Democrats also raised the issue of names for other buildings. In the
Senate, Harry Reid, D-Nev., proposed an amendment to remove J. Edgar
Hoover's name from the headquarters of the Federal Bureau of
"J. Edgar Hoover stands for what is bad about this country. This small
man violated the rights of hundreds, if not thousands, of people, famous
and not so famous," Reid said.
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, opposed the amendment, saying Hoover had
many accomplishments. "I have to say there is a raft of FBI agents who
would be very offended by this," he said. The Senate voted 62-36 to table
(kill) the amendment.
In the House, Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., tried
unsuccessfully in January to broker a compromise on the airport bill that
would have permitted consideration of legislation (HR1383) to name the
Justice Department headquarters after Robert F. Kennedy, the former
attorney general and senator from New York. (Vote 5, p. 340)
But when efforts at a compromise broke down, the fighting broke out.
"It was partisanship to the max," said House Budget Committee Chairman John
R. Kasich, R-Ohio.
The 10,500-member National Air Traffic Controllers Association joined
Democrats in criticizing Reagan for firing 11,000 air-traffic controllers
during a 1981 strike. Randy Schwitz, the association's executive vice
president, said he would prefer to have a "hot poker in my eye" than an
airport named for Reagan.
Democrats, with private agreement from some
Republicans, questioned the amount of time spent debating the bill and the
wisdom of making it the first bill passed this year.
"It's indicative that they have nothing else to do," said Rep. Barney
The biggest challenge to the proposal came in the House, where
Republicans Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia, and Constance A. Morella of
Maryland joined Democrats James P. Moran of Virginia and Peter A. DeFazio
of Oregon, in sponsoring an amendment to require approval of the local
Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.
Backers of the amendment argued that the bill would pre-empt local
decision-making, which Reagan championed. The House voted narrowly,
206-215, to defeat the amendment.
A last attempt to derail the bill failed when the House voted 186-237
against a motion to modify the bill and name one of the airport's terminals
for Reagan. House Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, argued against the motion,
pointing out that former presidents George Bush and John F. Kennedy both
have entire airports named for them in Texas and New York. "To say that it
is OK to name a terminal after Ronald Reagan is an insult to the name of
one of the greatest presidents that has ever served this country," DeLay
© 1998 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All rights reserved.