Peach Month? Congressional 'commemoratives' on the rise
Boston — Congress may have named 1982 as the bicentennial year of the American Bald Eagle, but the national bird won't be the only thing Americans will be spotlighting this year.
Prepare the celebrations, America, -because here come Women's History Week (March 7 to 13), Energy Education Day (March 19), and Peach Month (July).
Last year, Congress passed a record 23 so-called ''commemorative'' bills, including such show-stoppers as Commodore John Barry Day (Sept. 13). Hungarian freedom fighters had their own day (Oct. 23), and National School Bus Safety Week was observed in October. This year, with five commemorative bills already passed by the House, Congress could better last year's record.
Some Americans may say horsefeathers to Bald Eagle Day (coming June 20, and not to be confused with the year-long commemoration of the noble bird). But somewhere out there, someone has gone to great lengths to get a cause officially recognized.
''It requires a lot of effort,'' says -Maurice Klitzman, vice-chairman of the National Council of Patent Law Associations (NCPLA).
The NCPLA several months ago convinced Rep. Robert W. Kastenmeier (D) of Wisconsin to introduce a bill recognizing this past Feb. 11 as National Inventors Day (not coincidentally the birthday of inventor Thomas Edison). The NCPLA, working with the congressman's staff, spent several months writing and visiting lawmakers to garner support.
Commemoratives require 218 cosponsors (a majority of the House) before they can go to the House floor for a vote. Usually, they are noncontroversial, quickly pass with unanimous consent, and are routinely approved by the Senate. (Who, after all, could oppose school bus safety?)
National Inventors Day passed on Feb. 10 - just one day before the actual celebration. The inventors would have celebrated the event anyway, Mr. Klitzman says, but official recognition ''legitimizes the whole thing. We're trying to stimulate creativity by honoring the giants.''
Every year congressmen introduce hundreds of these bills, says Michael Farrell, who handles the House commemoratives for the House Post Office and Civil Service Committee. For legislators ''it's an easy, relatively inexpensive way to satisfy constituents. Rarely does (the idea) originate in the member's mind,'' he says.
Some groups seek publicity for their cause, Mr. Farrell says, while others push for a commemorative because they want to promote their products.
Peach Month, for example, may not get people out bobbing for peaches. But when July comes around, the National Peach Council hopes to boost the sales of the fuzzy fruit. The council plans a ''Reach for a Peach'' campaign with promotion materials available to supermarkets nationwide.
But for every Peach Month that makes it, hundreds of other commemoratives rot on the vine, usually from lack of cosponsors, Farrell says. Among those that have failed so far: hawk watching, positive mental attitude, and jogging.
Even the commemoratives that make it live a short life. Once commemoratives become law, backers must introduce a completely new bill to celebrate it the next year, Farrell says.
Occasionally, a commemorative gets tangled up in controversy - such as last year's debate over Mother-in-Law Day.
One House member called for a roll-call vote, ''which is unheard of in these little bills,'' Farrell recalls. The roll call was a delaying tactic, he suggests, because right behind it came a controverisal bill on toxic waste dumping.
The bill finally did pass the House, but not before a lot of debate and 66 votes against the measure. With that kind of controversy, the Senate will probably sit on the bill, Farrell says.
Meanwhile, some senators are getting fed up with the whole idea of commemorative bills. Rep. Bill Goodling (R) of Pennsylvania says that, in principle, he's against naming days because it takes up time and costs a lot of money.
Farrell disagrees. Naming special days and weeks ''is a long tradition that I doubt will be reversed,'' he says. ''As long as the constituents love it, we'll keep doing it.''