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Measure to Limit Medals Gets No. 1 Billing

The first bill brought up at the start of a new Congress often carries a degree of symbolism.

At the beginning of the 108th, in the midst of an economic downturn, the House moved first to consider an extension of unemployment benefits. In 1995, both chambers immediately proceeded to debate of the Congressional Accountability Act, fulfilling a Republican campaign promise.

While the Senate has yet to schedule bills for consideration this session, the House began the week with two suspension bills and is scheduled today to bring up its first piece of legislation in regular order: H.R. 54, which would “provide reasonable standards for congressional gold medals.”

The issuance, or perhaps over-issuance, of Congressional Gold Medals was hardly a topic that featured prominently on the campaign trail, and its position as the first bill to be considered this Congress perplexed some on the Hill.

Even the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.), was a little surprised by its timing.

Castle introduced the bill last session, seeking to limit the number of Congressional Gold Medals awarded to no more than two a year. But while preserving the prestige of Congress’ highest honor has been a long-time priority for the lawmaker, Castle said he had no idea how his became the first bill of the new Congress.

“I don’t really know the answer to that,” he said. “I didn’t push it. The [Financial Services] Committee and the leadership got together and decided to do it.”

A House Republican aide suggested that the leadership needed a roll call vote to keep Members in town for the week while committees were organizing.

But a spokesman for Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) insisted that the cause of ensuring that Congress protects the prestige of its medals is a worthy one. “This is an important issue,” Hastert spokesman John Feehery said. “Not to say there has been abuse, but we want to make sure there is no abuse.”

The issue, it seems, is that Castle, among others, thinks that Congress has given away too many of the gold medals, which are the highest civilian honor Congress can bestow. But no one is willing to say just which medals were, in a matter of speaking, excessive.

“The feeling was that we were starting to award them too broadly, perhaps,” Castle said in an interview. “The feeling was we needed to take them back to where we were — it’s the highest honor we can give. There needs to be some restrictions on it.”

Castle’s bill would provide two such restrictions, in addition to limiting the number of awards Congress can bestow annually to two.

Under Castle’s bill, the medals could be given only to an individual and not to groups, as was the case with the 29 Navajo Code Talkers who received the gold medal in 2000, as well as the additional 275 silver medals awarded as part of that group.

Limiting the award to individuals also presumably would have excluded Nancy Reagan, Betty Ford and Ruth Graham, spouses who received the honor jointly with their husbands, Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford and Billy Graham, respectively.

In addition, the proposed legislation would allow medals to be awarded posthumously at least five years after a recipient’s death, but no more than 20. Had that restriction been in effect in 2003, Jackie Robinson would not have qualified for a medal, since he died in 1972. Former Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-Texas), who received a medal posthumously in 1962, would also not have qualified under the new guidelines, as he had died the previous year.

Castle, insisting that the move to change how Congress awards gold medals was “not just me,” said the primary goal is to reduce the overall number of awards in order to maintain their cachet.

George Washington received the first in 1776 for his “wise and spirited conduct” in the early part of the Revolutionary War. Other recipients have included civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks, inventor Thomas Edison, poet Robert Frost, Pope John Paul II, Colin Powell and Mother Teresa.

“There have been some fairly significant numbers in recent years,” Castle said. “The thinking is that these will be limited to two a year. And hopefully they will be deserving.”

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Photos of the week ending April 19, 2024