In an increasingly rare example of an open debate that seemed to lack any partisan division, members of the House Appropriations Committee spent half of a markup session Tuesday discussing an issue that had almost nothing to do with dollars and cents.
Instead, Members spoke to their colleagues about the history of the Capitol itself, the sins of past generations and ideas about proper legislative process as they debated an amendment to the fiscal 2008 legislative branch spending bill that would change the name of the Capitol Visitor Center’s Great Hall to Emancipation Hall.
It was a debate that saw Appropriations ranking member Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) ask for time only so he could cede it to Democratic Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (Ill.). Lewis noted at one point that “I have never been prouder of this committee than I am today,” while Jackson implored his colleagues, “Don’t shirk your responsibilities, appropriators. … We can send millions of dollars overseas but we can’t name a room? Let us begin a new chapter in history. Let us fight for Emancipation. It is the right thing to do.”
In the end, the committee voted to send to the House floor the amendment, originally offered in a subcommittee markup by Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), that would rename the 20,000-square-foot space which will be the focal point of the new CVC.
Wamp has argued that renaming the space is important not only to avoid confusion with the older, much venerated Great Hall at the Library of Congress, but also as a way to acknowledge a seminal moment in American history and the slave laborers who were used to build the Capitol.
“Today this issue actually became more important than a lot of the dollars and cents issues because those are mundane, routine. We can discuss whether it’s $16 million or $7 million anytime,” Wamp said after the hearing. “These are the things that actually catch your heart and your imagination and you realize that sometimes the images you send with actions like this transcends the dollars.”
Tuesday’s debate on the renaming amendment boiled down to a disagreement on whether the Appropriations Committee could and should be making decisions on the naming of a space in a federal building.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the chairwoman of the subcommittee on the legislative branch, originally offered a bill that would direct the Architect of the Capitol not to hang any of the already-purchased “Great Hall” signage (which cost approximately $250,000) in the CVC until the renaming issue could be further studied and vetted by various oversight groups, including Congressional leadership, other committees with jurisdiction and a year-old task force established specifically for the purpose of recognizing the contribution of slave laborers in the construction of the Capitol.
In fact, in the week since Wamp made it clear that he intended to pursue his renaming legislation beyond the subcommittee markup, several letters asking appropriators to hold off on any such legislation were sent to the committee, including one from Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the head of the task force, and another from Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.).
Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.), who agreed a name change was perhaps in order, said it would be “institutionally arrogant” for appropriators to impose their ideas on the new space and suggested that perhaps members of the public who visit the CVC in its first year of operation might be the best people to pick a new name for the Great Hall.
But Wamp and Jackson, who co-sponsored the amendment, offered emotional pleas to their colleagues, claiming that this is an instance where process is interfering with something that simply is the right thing to do.
“The process, frankly, would be catching up with where we are now, and time is of the essence,” Wamp said after the hearing. “It is frankly the right thing to do and so many people know it. … This is an emotion and that showed up in the room today, the whole emotion of why this hall should be named Emancipation Hall.
“I think we will win the day in the House,” Wamp said. “The question is, will the Senate, when we go to conference, allow this to stand? I hope so and I believe so.”
Asked about the concerns raised by other House entities over the naming issue, Wamp said, “the committees that actually had jurisdiction like the Transportation Committee, they weren’t engaged [before now] and as a result the Architect was going to name this the Great Hall. Who stepped in to stop that? The answer is no one. Until the people who fund it said, ‘you can’t do that.’”
And when it comes to the jurisdiction of the slave labor task force, Jackson argued that the entire issue of emancipation actually is a separate issue altogether.
“They have a very specific mandate on the slave labor task force to determine the appropriate role and the appropriate recognition of slave labor in the construction of the United States Capitol, [which was] a very fixed event in time,” Jackson said. “The Emancipation Proclamation and the process to arrive at the 13th Amendment is not limited to that specific legislative jurisdiction. It’s a much bigger conversation. … These are two separate events.”
Wasserman Schultz said she eventually adopted the amendment to the bill over her own objections because she “respected the sentiments of the members of the committee” who spoke out on the issue.
“I believe in consensus, I believe in democracy. I don’t believe in cramming my opinion down people’s throats,” she said. “I still have a very strong feeling about this and I haven’t changed my view, but I will continue to work with my colleagues on what we think is the right approach to naming that room.”
But she also cautioned her colleagues that the Great Hall issue might set an inappropriate precedent for the committee.
“We will go through these emotional, gut-wrenching debates every single year in the legislative branch appropriations bill if we allow the Appropriations Committee to name buildings and name rooms,” she said. “It is not the appropriate place. There is a reason that is done in the authorizing committees where they have the time and are structured to debate things like that.”