Shakespeare’s what’s-in-a-name argument — that a rose would smell just as sweet by another moniker — clearly has its limits on Capitol Hill, where at least one lawmaker wants to make sure that buildings and other spaces are labeled with care.
Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) — ranking member on the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, which deals with internal institutional issues — quietly introduced a resolution last month that would establish new standards and restrictions on naming any building or space within the Senate side of the Capitol complex.
“Senator Dodd believes that we ought to have a thoughtful process in place to deal with the naming of government property,” said Dodd spokesman Marvin Fast.
“It shouldn’t be driven by current passions or politics,” Fast said in a written statement, “but by well-thought-out criteria that recognize both our past and the future.”
The move follows an effort launched earlier this year by social activist and entertainer Dick Gregory. He wants to change the name of the Russell Senate Office Building, which was named for the late Sen. Richard Russell (D-Ga.) more than 30 years ago, because the Senator was a staunch opponent of anti-lynching legislation and has been accused of other racist actions.
Neither Dodd nor any other Senator has come out publicly in support of Gregory’s effort despite intensive lobbying efforts by Gregory’s group, called Change the Name — but it looks like there might be some hope for Gregory after all.
Dodd’s legislation would prohibit naming any portion of the Senate wing of the Capitol complex after any person until he or she has been dead for at least five years.
Moreover, 25 years after enactment, Dodd’s resolution would strip the existing names of the Senate wing of the Capitol, the Russell, Dirksen and Hart Senate office buildings, and any space under control of the Senate in the new Capitol Visitor Center.
Senators have made it a custom to name everything from buildings and rooms to balconies and hallways after their esteemed colleagues, both living and deceased.
“It’s not an old tradition,” remarked Associate Senate Historian Don Ritchie, who noted that the Senate office buildings weren’t named until the early 1970s.
In 1972, the Senate passed legislation to name two Senate office buildings after Russell and Sen. Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.), both of whom had recently died.
Four years later, the third Senate office building was named after then-Sen. Philip Hart (D-Mich.), who was terminally ill. Ironically, Hart had been the lone Senator to voice dissent during the naming of the Russell and Dirksen buildings, stating in a floor speech that he though it “unwise to anticipate history’s verdict.”
During Ritchie’s early years on Capitol Hill, he said the only room in the Capitol building named after a Senator was the Vandenberg Room — named after former Sen. Arthur Vandenberg (R-Mich.) — across from the Refectory, the historic dining hall on the first floor of the Capitol.
The Senate now has named multiple areas after Senators.
In 1996, the Senate named a balcony on the second floor of the Capitol, not far from the so-called “Ohio Clock,” after former Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole (R-Kan.), who liked to rest there.
A bit further down the corridor on the second floor is the Howard Baker Suite, named after the former Republican Majority Leader from Tennessee and currently inhabited by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).
Another spacious office within the Capitol is named after recently deceased former Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.).
After the Dole Balcony was named, Ritchie said a joke began to circulate in the Democratic Cloakroom about one Senator who complained that all the rooms in the building had already been named before he had a chance to get his own name stamped on one.
“He hung a sign [bearing his name] on one of the phone booths [in the cloakroom],” Ritchie said.
Representatives of Change the Name said they are encouraged by Dodd’s resolution.
“This was totally serendipitous that this had been going on,” said Mark Planning, a spokesman for the group. “It kind of confirms our instincts that at least in the case of the Russell Building, there’s something wrong and there should be adjustments made.”
E. Faye Williams, who serves on the board of Change the Name and was a co- chairwoman of the 1995 Million Man March and the 2000 Million Family March, said she believes the bill is a “step in the right direction” but not an outright solution.
“It doesn’t really solve our problem. If I understand, it would be changing the names of certain buildings after a 25-year period. That would be simply too long to wait to get the name of Richard Russell [removed from the building],” she said.
Williams, who has met with Dodd’s staff, said her group “applauds and supports” his effort but will continue its crusade to have Russell’s name stripped from the building sooner rather than later.
It’s unclear whether Dodd’s proposal will get the support of his colleagues in the Senate.
“We’re hopeful that other Members of the Senate will ultimately support the resolution as Senator Dodd seeks consideration both in the Rules Committee,” Fast said.