Your Congress at work, now fighting over sports

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 26, 2010 

WASHINGTON — It's not enough for lawmakers to bicker over war, taxes, immigration, global warming and the federal deficit.

Now they're fighting over measures that congratulate college sports teams for winning national titles or hail professional athletes for their achievements.

The once-routine resolutions honoring hometown squads or stars sailed through Congress for years with nary a discordant note or vote — but no more.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., is steamed that a resolution he introduced on June 30 praising the University of South Carolina baseball team for winning the 2010 College World Series is stuck in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"It's a sad day when the Senate can no longer even come together for this purpose," Graham told McClatchy. "Is it any wonder why the public has such a dim view of the way Congress is operating?"

Only 11 percent of Americans expressed "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in Congress in a Gallup poll released on June 22.

"It's one thing to not be able to do the big things which are hard, like reforming Social Security," Graham said. "But it's quite another to not be able to do the simple, appropriate and easy things like recognizing a team for winning a national championship."

A small but growing number of lawmakers say that successful athletes get plenty of accolades outside Washington — and that bills celebrating them waste precious time in Congress.

"We need to raise the bar and start doing serious work around here," Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a freshman Utah Republican, said last week during a contentious House of Representatives floor debate on two commemorative sports measures.

"I don't care if it's a Democrat, I don't care if it's a Republican (who sponsors such legislation), if it's in the world of sports, they get enough recognition," Chaffetz said. "We've got important business. We have troops that are in harm's way. We have not brought up a budget resolution to discuss the outrageous debt and deficit that we're suffering through."

Individual champions are also caught in the crossfire.

Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., introduced a measure last December congratulating Jimmie Johnson for winning the 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup. The bill was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has yet to take it up.

"I hope we can overcome the stalemate on sports resolutions, so that we can again congratulate great athletes in North Carolina and across the country," Hagan told McClatchy.

Among dozens of similar measures on hold are resolutions by Alabama Republican Sen. Richard Shelby commemorating the University of Alabama for its 2009 college football title and by Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu honoring Louisiana State University's 2009 baseball championship.

"The senator is disappointed that partisan bickering has caused something so non-controversial to stall," said Aaron Saunders, a spokesman for Landrieu.

When Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., introduced a bill on April 22, 2009, honoring the University of North Carolina's national basketball title, the Senate passed it the same day on a unanimous voice vote.

Now, though, Burr's been stymied in his bid to congratulate Duke University's 2010 basketball championship victory.

And Graham can't persuade colleagues to take up his bill giving a Senate shout-out to South Carolina native golfer Lucas Glover for winning the 2009 U.S. Open.

Burr and Shelby declined to comment.

No one will say why the Senate sports measures are stuck — beyond playing the partisan blame game.

"Republicans are pulling all sorts of silly stunts these days, but this one is particularly egregious," said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

Responded Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.:

"I can't find any holds on the resolutions here. You may want to check with Senator Reid's office."

The Senate's venerable tradition of secret holds enables one senator to block legislation anonymously.

On the other side of the Capitol, the House has managed to pass some celebratory sports legislation, but doing it's gotten harder.

Lawmakers last week approved South Carolina Republican Rep. Joe Wilson's measure honoring the Gamecocks' recent baseball title — but only after a nasty floor fight.

The Gamecocks resolution was debated in tandem with legislation noting the 142nd anniversary of the Saratoga Race Course. New York lawmakers said that makes it the nation's oldest horse-racing venue.

Chaffetz, the Utah Republican, branded such measures frivolous.

That infuriated Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat from the District of Columbia.

Noting that a New York Democrat, Rep. Scott Murphy, sponsored the Saratoga racetrack bill, Norton challenged Chaffetz to oppose the Gamecocks legislation backed by South Carolina Republican Wilson.

After Chaffetz promised to vote against Wilson's measure — a pledge he kept — Norton said:

"I do commend the gentleman for saying he'll vote against Mr. Wilson's bill," she said. "Having been called out, I guess he has to do that to show that he has any guts at all."

Six House members — two Democrats and four Republicans — voted against Wilson's bill.

Two other Democrats, Reps. Peter DeFazio of Oregon and Jim Oberstar of Minnesota, voted "present."

DeFazio reached deep into the dictionary to explain his vote.

"We have problems in this country we must address, not the least of which is creating jobs," he said. "I just don't think we should be wasting our time on hortatory resolutions."

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