Congress Names What It Names

How do you get your name on a big federal building? It helps to be important in the federal government, and to have died recently. But lately, that second requirement seems to have been suspended.

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When the Senate reconvenes next month, it plans to take up a bill that among many other things names a federal courthouse for the departing Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. Now some might consider that a bit hasty. Frist doesn't actually leave office until January.

But as NPR's Peter Overby reports, when it comes to putting names on federal infrastructure, Congress has few rules and even less restraint.

PETER OVERBY reporting:

Bill Frist is closing out 12 years in the Senate. The Tennessee Republican has been the majority leader for four of those years. Now, as the days dwindle down, two other GOP Senators want to do something nice for him, hence a sentence in a 500-page spending bill designating a new federal courthouse in Nashville, Tennessee, as the William H. Frist, M.D. Federal Courthouse.

Tennessee Republican Chairman Bob Davis says people there will appreciate seeing Frist's name on the building.

Mr. BOB DAVIS (Tennessee Republican Party): Whether they look at him as a United States Senator, as one of the greatest heart surgeons this country has ever had or as something else, maybe president of the United States, I think that people will certainly appreciate what that family has meant to this community and really the state.

OVERBY: But the bill doesn't contain a penny to start construction. Naming it first strikes some critics as just another sign of what's wrong with Congress. Steve Ellis is with watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Mr. STEVE ELLIS (Taxpayers for Common Sense): It's sort of like making sure that you celebrate your coworker's birthday because you want to be sure that they celebrate yours.

OVERBY: Accusations are flying that the 109th Congress hasn't done enough, but since early 2005, it has named 80 bits of federal infrastructure, among them post offices around the country named for Americans who died in Iraq and Afghanistan, other post offices for Ray Charles and for Ava Gardner, the Amo Houghton Bypass - a highway, not a surgical procedure - named for a former New York Congressman.

Mr. STEVEN TUCK (Miami University of Ohio): We have ways of ostensibly honoring individuals which really don't honor their values, just their name.

OVERBY: Steven Tuck is an associate professor of classics at Miami University of Ohio. He studied how buildings have been named through the ages. He says the best named buildings reflect the passion of those they're named for. Thus heart surgeon Bill Frist might be honored with a Frist medical research center, but not with a building that's all about lawsuits and criminal justice.

Mr. TUCK: Senator Frist is a physician, not an attorney, so voting to name something for someone who's not associated with the legal profession, for which no money has been allocated, really strikes me as an absurd notion.

OVERBY: But no more absurd than, say, hanging President Woodrow Wilson's name on a highway bridge. Congress did that back in 1956. The Woodrow Wilson Bridge carries Interstate 95 across the Potomac River. It's been way over capacity for decades. For East Coast truckers and D.C. area commuters, Woodrow Wilson isn't a president anymore, he's a bottleneck.

Now the old bridge is being replaced and the builders held a contest. The commuter with the worst Wilson bridge story gets to blow up part of the old bridge early next week. And the winner is Dan Ruefly of Maryland, an electrical contractor who uses the bridge at least twice a day. In 1999, he was in a bad accident on the bridge. An ambulance picked him up and it got stuck in the bridge traffic. Does Ruefly ever think about Woodrow Wilson the man?

Mr. DAN RUEFLY (Maryland resident): You mean the president, Woodrow Wilson?

OVERBY: Yeah.

Mr. RUEFLY: No, never, you know?

OVERBY: If I say Woodrow Wilson to you, what do you think of?

Mr. RUEFLY: Pretty much the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

OVERBY: And it might be even worse for the late Congressman Ed Garmatz, who left office in the early 1970s. Congress designated the Edward A. Garmatz Federal Courthouse in Baltimore. Not long after, a grand jury at that courthouse indicted him. The charges were soon dismissed. Garmatz died in 1986. What hasn't died is the story of Congressman Garmatz and the courthouse named for him.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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