Between health care, tax reform, budgets, and other divisive issues, it seems Congress can’t agree on much these days. But Republicans and Democrats are working together to honor a barrier-breaking baseball star and a man who spent much of his career under the Capitol Dome.
The late ballplayer Larry Doby and former Sen. Bob Dole are up for Congressional Gold Medals, and the legislation for the awards—which require vast bipartisan support in an era of extreme polarization—have already garnered hundreds of cosponsors.
“I think it’s a good reminder to all members of Congress in the House and the Senate that common ground has been found in past and can be found again,” said Sarah Little, communications director for Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, who’s leading the charge for Dole’s award.
Congressional Gold Medals, the highest award Congress can bestow on individuals, institutions, groups, or events, are given to show national appreciation for significant achievements and contributions.
Initially bestowed upon only military heroes, such as George Washington, who received the first ever medal in 1776, Congress has since broadened the recipients to include authors, astronauts, and entertainers. Bob Hope, Robert Frost, Walt Disney, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta are among the approximately 300 medal recipients.
The awarding of a Congressional Gold Medal is no easy task, though. Of the dozens proposed during each Congress, only a handful pass because two-thirds of both the House and the Senate must cosponsor—not just vote for—the legislation. That’s 290 House members and 67 senators. Two were awarded in 2016, and only one passed in 2015.
Sponsors of the awards for Doby and Dole are optimistic.
Doby’s bill was introduced this session by Republican Rep. Jim Renacci of Ohio, but the project started in 2016 when Democratic Rep. Bill Pascrell of New Jersey contacted Renacci’s office to team up on the legislation. Stephen Hostelley, legislative director for Renacci, said the two members have worked together on bipartisan legislation in the past and have a good relationship.
The Democrat introduced the first bill for the award in 2016 and the pair was able to get 292 cosponsors, exceeding the magic number. But the Senate side wasn’t ready before the legislative calendar ended. So the Republican stepped up to bat in 2017 to try again. Already the bipartisan team and their staff have put up big numbers with 212 cosponsors. Hostelley said Renacci and Pascrell chat with other members on the floor to tell Doby’s story and solicit their sponsorship.
“Oftentimes member-to-member conversations make the process go a lot smoother than staff-to-staff,” Hostelley said, though he and Pascrell’s staff do reach out to other staff to move the process along.
After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Doby, a superstar in both basketball and baseball, signed on with the Cleveland Indians as the first African American to play in the American League. He was the second African American to play Major League Baseball, mere months behind Jackie Robinson.
“He went through all the same struggles and a lot of the same racial challenges that Jackie Robinson did, but he didn’t get the same media attention,” Hostelley said. “He also was a pioneer for a civil rights movement within Major League Baseball and major league professional sports.”
The Senate bill, headed by Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, has five cosponsors. Hostelley said the Senate has done a great job obtaining support from organizations like the Baseball Hall of Fame and the Major League Players Association.
Roberts introduced Dole’s award, and it has already passed the Senate floor, with all 100 senators signed on.
“That speaks to the respect for Senator Dole that all senators have,” Little said, acknowledging the rare accomplishment of having them all agree. But to get those cosponsors, Roberts still worked the Senate floor.
“That’s his strength—member-to-member relationships and conversations,” Little said.
Rep. Lynn Jenkins, a fellow Kansas Republican, introduced the House bill and it currently has 75 cosponsors. Little said Roberts is optimistic about it passing through the House.
“I mean, it’s Bob Dole,” she said. “He’s given his life to serving the country and even in retirement he’s still serving the country.”
Dole served in World War II in the U.S. Army and was awarded two Purple Hearts and two Bronze Stars with an oak leaf cluster. He then served in the Kansas House of Representatives, before being elected to the House in 1960 and eight years later to the Senate, where he served until 1996, when he resigned to run for president.
While these bills will have no effect on health care or the tax code, Renacci communications director Kelsey Knight said it shows at least some unity and productivity in Congress—and that’s what constituents back home want.
“That can still be a really big win,” she said.
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