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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