The Crackdown on Naming Post Offices

Post office naming bills are down — but not out.

This illustration can only be used with the Jason Plautz piece that originally ran in the 4/18/2015 issue of National Journal magazine.
Koren Shadmi
Jason Plautz
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Jason Plautz
April 17, 2015, 1:01 a.m.

In Septem­ber of 2010, then—House Minor­ity Lead­er John Boehner gave a speech at the Amer­ic­an En­ter­prise In­sti­tute about the need for con­gres­sion­al re­form, hold­ing up as evid­ence a par­tic­u­lar type of le­gis­la­tion: “With all the chal­lenges fa­cing our na­tion, it is ab­surd that Con­gress spends so much time on nam­ing post of­fices, con­grat­u­lat­ing sports teams, and cel­eb­rat­ing the birth­days of his­tor­ic­al fig­ures,” he said. “It’s time to fo­cus on do­ing what we were sent here to do.”

Since then, many com­mem­or­ative res­ol­u­tions — in­clud­ing most sports and birth­day cel­eb­ra­tions — have been stamped out, but, as the 114th Con­gress gets in­to full swing, how’s that post of­fice thing go­ing? Well, it de­pends on how you look at it. Un­der Boehner & Co., the raw num­bers have gone down — few­er post of­fice bills have been in­tro­duced, and only 46 be­came law in the speak­er’s first term. (The pre­vi­ous Con­gress sent 70 to the pres­id­ent, and the one be­fore that 109, ac­count­ing for more than 20 per­cent of the over­all en­acted le­gis­la­tion over four years.) In the 113th, just 38 post of­fices were named, ac­cord­ing to data from the Lib­rary of Con­gress. But, be­cause Con­gress is do­ing so little le­gis­lat­ing in gen­er­al these days, the bills still make up a sig­ni­fic­ant chunk of its over­all activ­ity. Since 2011, post of­fice bills have rep­res­en­ted 16 per­cent of the total le­gis­la­tion en­acted; last ses­sion, they ac­coun­ted for 13 per­cent.

Con­gress first passed a post of­fice nam­ing law in 1967, to hon­or former Rep. Charles Buckley of New York, a one­time chair­man of the House Com­mit­tee on Pub­lic Works. Over the dec­ades, nam­ing post of­fices be­came an in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar way for fed­er­al law­makers to com­mem­or­ate celebrit­ies and pay trib­ute to war vet­er­ans. The prac­tice reached a peak un­der the Demo­crat­ic-con­trolled Con­gress that Boehner ex­cor­i­ated in his AEI speech. At that point, the men­tion of nam­ing post of­fices had be­come a com­mon setup for the punch line “your tax dol­lars at work.”

After the 2010 Re­pub­lic­an takeover, the House Over­sight and Gov­ern­ment Re­form Com­mit­tee in­sti­tuted a rule that the nam­ing of post of­fices “shall be con­duc­ted so as to min­im­ize the time spent on such mat­ters by the com­mit­tee and the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives.” The com­mit­tee also is­sued a Dear Col­league let­ter out­lining stricter policies for con­sid­er­ing the meas­ures, which in­cluded this re­com­mend­a­tion: “In or­der to ef­fi­ciently util­ize the time and re­sources of the Com­mit­tee and the House, postal fa­cil­ity nam­ing bills will be con­sidered once every two or three months.”

But when I re­cently asked Jason Chaf­fetz, the cur­rent chair of the Over­sight Com­mit­tee, about post-of­fice-re­nam­ing bills, he seemed un­aware of any push to cut back. “They don’t take much time, so I’m happy to move them if they’re jus­ti­fied and have broad loc­al sup­port. If they were tak­ing up a huge amount of time or staff — but they’re pretty easy,” he said. (A spokes­man for former Over­sight Com­mit­tee Chair Dar­rell Issa, un­der whom the rule and Dear Col­league let­ter were is­sued, con­firmed that Issa had set stricter lim­its on the le­gis­la­tion.)

After the 2010 Re­pub­lic­an takeover, the House Over­sight and Gov­ern­ment Re­form Com­mit­tee in­sti­tuted a rule that the nam­ing of post of­fices “shall be con­duc­ted so as to min­im­ize the time spent on such mat­ters by the com­mit­tee and the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives.”

Eli­jah Cum­mings, rank­ing mem­ber of the com­mit­tee, soun­ded more aware of the slow­down: “I haven’t coun­ted, but now that you men­tion it, I don’t see that many of them any more. And I think that did come as the res­ult of Re­pub­lic­ans mak­ing it clear they were not ne­ces­sar­ily wel­come. In oth­er words, they’ll do them, but it’s al­most on the level of dis­cour­aging them.” Like Chaf­fetz, he doesn’t really see the need for a crack­down. “You know how long it takes to do a post of­fice bill?” he asks me. “About five minutes. So, we can do more than one thing at one time.”

Five minutes to pass, per­haps, but like any­thing on the Hill, post of­fice bills do take work. Just to get to com­mit­tee, a bill has to be backed by every mem­ber of a state’s del­eg­a­tion. The spon­sors have to sub­mit a bio­graphy of the sub­ject, some­times with in­put from the Con­gres­sion­al Re­search Ser­vice, and en­sure the post of­fice in ques­tion can be re­named and won’t be clos­ing any­time soon. In the end, the post of­fice gets an 11-by-14-inch plaque and an un­veil­ing ce­re­mony. The cost, typ­ic­ally between $250 and $500, is borne by the U.S. Postal Ser­vice.

“These bills are, on the one hand, pretty in­noc­u­ous, but you’ve also got staff spend­ing time on this. There’s a lot of little scut work,” says Kev­in Kosar, a seni­or fel­low with the non­profit R Street In­sti­tute, who spent 11 years with CRS. Kosar says CRS staffers were pulled in to check bio­graph­ies of honorees, re­search the own­er­ship of post of­fices, and even weigh ques­tions such as wheth­er Con­gress could put a re­li­gious title on a plaque.

“It’s like, I have an ad­vanced de­gree and I came here to work on ser­i­ous policy,” says Kosar, who left CRS in Oc­to­ber. “Then you’re get­ting this feel-good le­gis­la­tion and do­ing stuff an 18-year-old without a de­gree could do.”

But there’s a reas­on these bills be­came pop­u­lar, and why they’ve proved to be something of a hard habit to break: Law­makers like them. In her fresh­man term, Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Ann Wag­n­er of Mis­souri sponsored two post of­fice bills that were signed in­to law and an­oth­er two that passed the House but be­cause of tim­ing got snagged in the Sen­ate. This term, she has re­in­tro­duced them, and she makes no apo­lo­gies.

“Every mem­ber of Con­gress should be do­ing things that are mean­ing­ful for their dis­trict and their con­stitu­ents,” Wag­n­er says. “What this does for the com­munity, it’s amaz­ing. Every­one comes out, you’ve got hun­dreds of people at the ce­re­mon­ies. It’s such a mov­ing ded­ic­a­tion and a way to come to­geth­er.”

In the 112th Con­gress, House mem­bers had in­tro­duced 12 post of­fice bills by May. In the 113th, there had been 17 by that point. So far, 17 have been in­tro­duced this Con­gress. In oth­er words, Boehner may have got­ten as far as he’s go­ing to get with per­sua­sion. Wag­n­er, for one, says she’s not ready to say no to a fam­ily mem­ber ask­ing her to hon­or a vet­er­an. “Stand­ing up on the floor, even if just for a few mo­ments, to re­cog­nize a fallen mil­it­ary hero is im­port­ant not just to the fam­ily, but to hon­or all of our sol­diers,” she says. “Why wouldn’t we do that?”

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