October 19th, 2007 04:23 EST
Congressional Nonbinding Resolutions Can Stir Passions
Washington -- Although nonbinding resolutions by the U.S. Congress have no force in law and often go unnoticed, they can evoke a passionate response.
Jackson Diehl, the Washington Post's deputy editorial page editor, told USINFO that Congress can use nonbinding resolutions as a first step in crafting legislation.
Nonbinding resolutions have several purposes, Diehl said. Congress can use them "just to strike a position" on an issue, to satisfy the concerns of constituents or to put pressure on the White House about a particular matter.
Diehl discussed a highly publicized nonbinding resolution in the U.S. House of Representatives that would label as "genocide" the mass killing of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire from 1915-1917.
The resolution's main sponsor, Representative Adam Schiff of California, has 70,000 ethnic Armenians in his Los Angeles area district. The Democratic congressman, said Diehl, "makes no secret of the fact he's trying to satisfy their concerns."
Diehl said another resolution supporter, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, has many Armenians in her San Francisco district. Pelosi long has supported the resolution but had been unable to move the measure to the House floor for a vote by the 435-member body while the Republicans held a majority in the House of Representatives. Pelosi's elevation to speaker -- the highest ranking member of Congress -- after the 2006 U.S. midterm elections gave the resolution's sponsors a "new opportunity" to bring it before the full House, said Diehl.
President Bush reiterated October 17 his call for Congress not to pass the resolution.
"One thing Congress should not be doing is sorting out the historical record of the Ottoman Empire," Bush said at a White House press conference.
Diehl asked in a March 5 Washington Post article if nonbinding congressional resolutions really matter.
"Most are ignored by everyone except the special interests they are usually directed at," Diehl wrote. But Diehl concluded that in the case of the Armenians, the genocide resolution was important because of its implications for U.S. foreign policy.
Congress uses several types of resolutions depending on the circumstances. A concurrent resolution can create joint committees, authorize the printing of congressional documents or set the date for Congress to adjourn. Concurrent resolutions also can express the sense of Congress on many matters of foreign and domestic policy.
In contrast, a joint resolution, passed by both chambers of Congress, if signed by the president, carries the force of law. The 1964 Gulf of Tonkin joint resolution, for example, led to what historians say was an expansion of the Vietnam War.
Allan Lichtman, a professor of history at American University in Washington, says a nonbinding resolution, like that addressing the violence against Armenians a century ago, does not change U.S. policy "because it does not have the force of law."
Lichtman told the Voice of America that nonbinding resolutions are common, especially in matters in which Congress does not want to change policy or lacks the votes needed to do so.
CONGRESSIONAL EXPERT COMMENTS
Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said nonbinding resolutions are all about politics.
He told USINFO that members of Congress use nonbinding resolutions in the hope that they will affect "public opinion enough that it will have an impact on policy."
Nonbinding resolutions are not sent to the president following congressional approval, said Ornstein, who appears frequently on American television as an expert commentator on politics, Congress and elections. Rather, the resolutions are used as a "symbol" of congressional opinion or sentiment on a matter, he said.
But symbolism is "not meaningless," Ornstein said. The Armenian resolution, he said, was a "cheap and easy way" for members of Congress "to express their solidarity with the Armenian people and especially with the Armenian-American population."
Ornstein said the resolution "has been around for a long time," because of the "significant population" of Armenian Americans in the United States.
Armenian Americans are an "extremely affluent and articulate population," and "they care passionately" about the killing of their people during the Ottoman Empire, he said.
The Armenians, said Ornstein, have been pushing in the United States and worldwide for recognition of the mass killings.
"An awful lot of Congressmen believed that what happened in 1915 to the Armenians" involved "serious atrocities," said Ornstein. "Recognizing that a nonbinding resolution was just symbolic, members of Congress said 'why not' pass the measure," he added.
But Ornstein said symbolism has "turned into a deadly serious business" with huge foreign policy ramifications that caused the resolution to lose support in Congress.
It is clear, Ornstein said, that members of Congress are "starting to get the message" that because of the volatility of the issue, the Armenian resolution is "playing with fire."
The full text of Diehl's article about the nonbinding Armenian resolution is available on the Washington Post Web site.
For more stories about the U.S. Congress, see The U.S. Congress.
(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)
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