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Legislators Send Message to Congress, Voters with Memorials

December 25, 2013 - 6:00pm

State lawmakers have often sent nonbinding, declarative messages to Congress to score political points back home, make demands on the federal government or publicize their opinions about hot topics.

Memorials considered by the GOP-controlled Florida Legislature over the past few years "ordered" Congress to build the Keystone pipeline, make BP pay for environmental cleanup from the Deepwater Horizon disaster, abolish the U.S. Department of Education and limit congressional terms.

Few of the proposals ever make it to Washington, D.C., where "there is a huge Dumpster somewhere outside the U.S. Capitol where they throw all of our memorials," former Florida Senate President Jeff Atwater once said.

And most of the measures, often replete with numerous "whereas" clauses and lofty-sounding titles, are ignored in Tallahassee, as well. The memorials typically languish without a committee hearing in either chamber.

The 2014 Legislative session won't be any different.

Mixed with the bills filed for the 2014 session are memorials that include the "Marketplace Fairness Act of 2013" in support of a national retail sales tax (SM 196), a call for congressional term limits (HM 81), and a request for Congress to enact federal immigration reform (HM 253).

Those measures are among 15 so far introduced for the 2014 session, about half the number typically filed in recent years.

Legislators often propose things they know will not pass but do it to satisfy key constituents or fellow legislators in key positions -- or soon to be in key positions," said University of South Florida political science professor Susan MacManus.

One of the memorials (SM 476) filed by Rep. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, calls for a convention to propose amendments to the U.S. Constitution that would limit the power of the federal government.

"It's giving America, the average people, the right to control the legislation and the right to control the demagoguery that is coming from Washington," said Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, in reference to Hays' memorial. "It's causing such a tremendous problem on the states and local government."

Only two of 22 memorials filed during the 2013 session received legislative and gubernatorial support.

One (SM 1266) called for Congress and the president to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the U.S. 65th Infantry Regiment, the "Puerto Rican regiment" known as the Borinqueneers. The second (SM 1478) urged U.S. Homeland Security to hasten immigration applications for Haitians impacted by the 2010 earthquake seeking to join family members already in the U.S.

The main reason politicians use the memorials is to reaffirm their positions with local constituents, said Kevin Wagner, an associate professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University.

"Proposing legislation that they know cannot pass, or even if it passed would not be constitutional, is a simple way to attract voters," Wagner said. "The fact that it is otherwise meaningless doesn't really matter, and is actually a benefit, since there are no potential consequences to the bill."

But Aubrey Jewett, an associate political science professor at the University of Central Florida, said there are a variety of less-cynical reasons legislators file proposals that have little hope of passing.

Lawmakers may want to bring attention to an issue or placate certain interest groups, Jewett said. Or they may repeatedly offer a memorial in the hope of building momentum, he said.

"Some legislators are just very passionate about certain issues and so bring them up over and over again, regardless of the chance of passage, because they really believe in them," Jewett said.

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