Chipping at Monumental Egos - Pacific Standard

Chipping at Monumental Egos

A Texas representative wants to lay off naming taxpayer-funded programs or projects for sitting members of Congress until after they leave the Hill.
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Texas Rep. Michael McCaul gets right to the point in the legislation he introduced this week, a paragon of brevity amid the thousand-page bills Congress has debated lately covering, in mind-boggling complication, health care, financial reform and the federal budget.

McCaul’s proposal is just one page — in fact, one paragraph, really. And for all that concise language — or perhaps because of it — he has a pretty sound idea.

“No Federal funds may be used,” his bill proposes, “for a project or program named for an individual then serving as a Member, Delegate, Resident Commissioner, or Senator of the United States Congress.”

That’s it.

Elected officials, in short, shouldn’t be allowed to name home-state projects after themselves using taxpayers’ money (the common practice, come to think of it, is an odd perversion of the private-sector tradition where wealthy donors put their names on buildings they pay for themselves).

McCaul’s legislation even has a catchy nickname — the “No Monuments to Me” bill.

THE IDEA LOBBYMiller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

THE IDEA LOBBY
Miller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

To get a sense for why it may be necessary, politicians should look no further than their late colleague Robert C. Byrd, who racked up as many concrete namesakes back in West Virginia as he did years in Washington as the longest-serving member in U.S. Senate history.

In his honor — with the help of federal funds he funneled home to the Mountain State — there is the Robert C. Byrd Expressway (separate from the Robert C. Byrd Freeway and the Robert C. Byrd Highway), the Robert C. Byrd Federal Building and Robert C. Byrd Courthouse, and the Robert C. Byrd Biotechnology Science Center.

“Byrd droppings,” Citizens Against Government Waste took to calling them. (The Daily Caller has an even more comprehensive list of them here).

McCaul, a Republican, isn’t suggesting that the people of West Virginia don’t need highways or rural health clinics (Byrd has one of those named after him, too).

“The question is not whether these projects are worthy of taxpayer dollars,” McCaul said in a statement announcing the legislation. “It’s a problem of perception that these projects receive special treatment because of the names they bear. At a minimum, when the American people see this it feeds the belief that members of Congress are arrogant and out of touch with the people we represent. At worst, these projects serve as a fundraising tool and campaign ad for the incumbent at taxpayer expense.”

This isn’t McCaul’s first go at the idea, which obviously resonates less with politicians than it does the American public. He worked a more narrow naming ban into a veterans and military construction appropriations bill in 2009. Banning the practice entirely, though, could be a logical and bipartisan idea — bipartisan in the sense that Democrats and Republicans equally pursue the practice and equally attack each other for it — particularly now that voters are more highly attuned to federal spending.

If politicians are deserving — and no one begrudges the many monuments named after George Washington — they can wait until they retire … or later.

“In the Catholic church, men or women put forward for public commemoration — i.e., sainthood — must meet two daunting requirements,” wrote columnist William McGurn in the Wall Street Journal, praising McCaul’s proposal. “First, he or she must be dead. Second, there must be two miracles credited to his or her intervention.”

That bar may be too high for American politicians, but taxpayers could at least ask them to do better than funnel constituents’ money back to them, in the form of monuments to their elected officials.

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