Wacky legislation comes from way out in left field

House Resolution 597 is not an immigration bill. It has nothing to do with the budget or national defense. It is a bill “recognizing and congratulating Don Ho on his career in music.” And with 53 other U.S. representatives, Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii sped it through to the Subcommittee on Select Education last month.

“Mr. Speaker,” Abercrombie said, introducing the bill, “I rise today to recognize and honor my old friend for his impressive musical career and his iconic status as the undisputed king of Waikiki entertainers.”

Though the bill may have seemed gratuitous at first glance, there was a back story: Don Ho, suffering from cardiac illness, had just received a stem-cell heart treatment a week earlier.

“Don Ho is a cultural institution in Hawaii,” said Mike Slackman, Abercrombie’s communications director, noting that Ho’s illness concerned the congressman. So he wanted to give Ho a vote of confidence, government style.

Congratulatory and recognition bills are relatively common in the House and Senate–on federal and state levels. While lawmakers struggle to reach compromise on immigration reform or the war in Iraq, this lighthearted fare slides through smoothly. As with all things political, there is a story behind the “whereas” and the “be it resolved.”

After “Napoleon Dynamite” hit movie theaters, becoming a cult classic, the Idaho House of Representatives took notice. Last April, state Reps. Larry Bradford and Max Black ushered in a fresh new Idaho resolution. “Whereas, tater tots figure prominently in this film thus promoting Idaho’s most famous export,” the bill reads, and “Whereas, Rico and Kip’s Tupperware sales and Deb’s key chains and glamour shots promote entrepreneurism and self-sufficiency in Idaho’s small towns,” it was resolved that Jared and Jerusha Hess, the writers and producers, were officially congratulated by Idaho.

The resolution got unanimous approval, sweeping the House and passing on to the secretary of state within two days. That may have had something to do with the bill’s final proviso, “Whereas, any members of the House of Representatives or the Senate of the Legislature of the State of Idaho who choose to vote ‘Nay’ on this concurrent resolution are ‘FREAKIN’ IDIOTS!’ and run the risk of having the ‘Worst Day of Their Lives!’”

“Things get tense around here,” Black said of the congressional session’s last week. “Tempers flare, and different things happen because what one person thinks is very important doesn’t get heard.” Adding a little humor during crunch time, he says, gives lawmakers a breather and eases friction in the House.

Members of Congress pass appreciative, seemingly superfluous, bills on a regular basis. Currently, the U.S. House Committee on Government Reform has on its plate a bill “expressing the sense of Congress regarding the primary author and the official home of ‘Yankee Doodle.’” Disneyland is to be congratulated for 50 years of existence; the House Subcommittee on Select Education is looking into whether Bruce Springsteen will be commended for the 30-year anniversary of his “masterpiece” album “Born to Run;” and the nation’s air conditioners and heaters, as well as their human technicians, were in line for recognition before the House Small Business Subcommittee tabled that measure last year.

State legislatures enjoy anniversaries, too. Alabama congratulated 12 couples on wedding anniversaries this session. Illinois congratulated eight. Georgia made note of 25 enduring marriages.

Federal and state lawmaking bodies also officially honored Coretta Scott King, Rosa Parks and Pope John Paul II.

“It’s fairly costless, other than the cost of printing,” said David King, lecturer in public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “Just about as fast as you can speak the legislation, it goes through. It’s meaningless, except for the person who’s being honored” and the politician “who’s trying to claim credit.” Elected officials started the trend at least 100 years ago, King said, noting that the bills are attractive to politicians because they’re “non-controversial” and “relatively harmless,” and they make people feel good.

But sometimes even the most benign proposals can stir debate.

In 2003, Pennsylvania state Sen. Mary Jo White had an idea. She wanted to spark political interest in elementary school pupils. So she came up with a bill that children could track online, watching the turns it took on its way to becoming a law.

It was Senate Bill 320, “Selecting, designating and adopting the chocolate chip cookie as the official cookie of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”

Pennsylvania has a state dog, the Great Dane, and a state drink, milk, so White figured an official chocolate chip cookie would be a fast sell. Not in this case. “There’s apparently some sugar cookie popular in the Dutch country,” she explained with a laugh. Her fellow senators brought in sugar cookies in an attempt to push their own choice for the official cookie throne.

“It wasn’t necessarily because we felt the state needed an official cookie,” White said with a chuckle. She and her cosponsors, Sen. Robert J. Thompson and Sen. Edward Helfrick, had not even been thinking about the cookie so much as their pilot program. Although Thompson has died and Helfrick has retired, White expects to reintroduce the cookie bill–and the online program for children to watch it–on her own in the next session. It remains to be seen whether the “very good-natured ribbing about the sugar cookie,” as she called it, will make an encore.

It was not the first time Pennsylvania’s Legislature faced such a dispute. In February 1999, 17 state representatives proposed to make the polka the official state dance. But the sponsors were blissfully unaware of another large contingent in the state until 16 square-dance-loving representatives brought their own bill to the table. The polka proponents dropped their bill “like a hot potato,” White said, “because it was going to be a lot more controversial than they’d imagined.”

Even when lighthearted bills come up against a heavy legislative agenda or a sugar cookie opponent, politicians generally make sure the bills pass and accomplish their feel-good goals. Take the case of the Don Ho bill. Now that Ho is recovering from surgery, he has heard about Abercrombie’s bill. “We understand that he was pleased with it,” Slackman said.

— Audrey Dutton – Columbia News Service