Longshot Odds

Bookmakers could have made some big money if gamblers placed an exacta bet or boxed a trifecta on which piece of legislation would trigger the biggest dustup on the House floor this week.

Controversy in the House this week didn’t center around approving an extension of unemployment insurance. Or even a bill about the oil spill.

No. Pari-mutuel bets would have poured in from Dubai and Vegas had high rollers known to watch for a fracas over an obscure, otherwise non-controversial measure to congratulate New York’s Saratoga Race Course on its 142nd season.

Rep. Scott Murphy (D-NY) introduced the legislation. He noted that Saratoga is the “oldest organized sporting venue in the U.S.” And Murphy’s package was part of a lengthy slate of other non-controversial bills the House debated, ranging from recognizing Railroad Retirement Day to naming the Post Office in Brighton, MI, after the mother of Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI).

The bill to salute Saratoga was heading into the clubhouse turn without incident. Until Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) closed quickly on the rail.

“We’re not dealing with the serious business,” blasted Chaffetz of the House entertaining such legislation. “We’re not offering a budget resolution. We’re not offering appropriations bills. We’re down here talking about race tracks.”

In fact, Chaffetz’s reservation wasn’t just with the Saratoga bill. Chaffetz questioned whether the House should be grappling with any legislation that honors sports at a time when the country is fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq and facing a bleak economy.

“If it’s in the world of sport, they get enough recognition,” chastised Chaffetz. “The people of the United States deserve better rather than to ‘debate’ whether they should recognize a race track on its 142nd anniversary.”

Like it or not, Congress has approved landmark, albeit controversial legislation in the past year and a half. Health care reform. A financial regulation bill. The stimulus. The House passed the climate package last spring. And some 300-plus bills are mired across the Capitol in the Senate. But despite major legislative achievements, lawmakers have prepped 78 resolutions to honor athletic teams, athletes or sports figures.

These bills run the spectrum.

Congress saluted the Emporia State Lady Hornet basketball team for winning the NCAA Women’s Division II national championship. It recognized the University of Alabama for its role as “one of the premier athletic and academic institutions in the country.” Lawmakers honored North Central College for its Division III championships in men’s cross country. It observed that the Cal Poly Pomona Broncos “shot over 50 percent from the field throughout the tournament and played with an impenetrable defense.” The House commended the New Orleans Saints for winning its first Super Bowl, observed that the Chicago Blackhawks “have made countless  contributions to sports” and praised Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim.

Congress also noted the passings of Detroit Tigers’ broadcaster Ernie Harwell, UCLA basketball coach John Wooden and New York Yankees’ owner George Steinbrenner.

Of course, Chaffetz doesn’t think much of these sports-related bills. But measures like this score big points for lawmakers with constituents back home.

Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY) argued that the race track bill “showcases Saratoga’s horseracing history” and called the facility “an economic engine for upstate New York.”

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) managed most of the non-controversial bills Tuesday. Norton took umbrage with Chaffetz’s decision to blast sports legislation. Especially after the Utah Republican co-sponsored a similar measure last year to honor Real Salt Lake for winning the 2009 Major League Soccer championship.

Also on the floor this week was a resolution authored by Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) to pay tribute to the University of South Carolina Gamecocks for winning this year’s College World Series. Chaffetz indicated he opposed Wilson’s resolution, too.

“I do commend the gentleman for saying he would vote against Mr. Wilson’s bill,” Norton scolded Chaffetz. “Having been called out, I guess he has to if he has any guts at all.”

“I’m trivializing it because it is trivial,” retorted Chaffetz.

“That doesn’t mean we don’t give time to very important matters,” snapped Norton.

Chaffetz later said that he has taken a pledge to vote no on all sports resolutions after he “came to realize what a waste of time that is.”

The House eventually voted to honor the Gamecocks. But five other lawmakers joined Chaffetz in opposing the resolution. And two lawmakers voted “present.”

However, that didn’t bother Joe Wilson.

“I fully understand that some people think that these resolutions are not substantive,” Wilson said. “I don’t want to question the way anyone votes.”

Still, Norton was astonished that Chaffetz would challenge the Saratoga legislation after co-sponsoring legislation to praise his home state’s soccer team.

“I just don’t think it lies in the gentleman’s mouth…” Norton said began.

That prompted an immediate rebuke from Chaffetz. He demanded a halt to the floor proceedings and asked that Norton’s “words be taken down.”

“Words taken down” in the House is parliamentary equivalent of being pulled over for speeding. In other words, a lawmaker may request that the House “take down the words” of a fellow lawmaker if it’s believed they broke decorum in the House or impugned the integrity of a fellow member.

“What words were said that were an insult to the gentlemen?” asked an incredulous Norton.

Someone whispered off-camera to Chaffetz that Norton didn’t accuse him of lying but that he simply misinterpreted her use of the word “lies.”

“Jason, I think it was a verb,” counseled the voice.

Regardless, rather than face potential sanction by the House, Norton withdrew her comment.

“I ask unanimous consent to remove from the record an idiomatic expression that was apparently misunderstood. I never called the gentleman dishonest,” Norton said. “’Lie in his mouth’ means the gentleman had no business saying what he was saying.”

The House finally finished debating the Saratoga race track measure on Tuesday. But never voted on it until Wednesday. Sure enough, the House approved the resolution honoring the track, 396-14. Chaffetz was one of the 14 nay votes. Two lawmakers voted present.

The South Carolina baseball resolution garnered only six noes. So for Chaffetz, the Saratoga bill was a gain of eight nays. But that’s still a long way away from defeating an overwhelmingly popular sport resolution.

Chaffetz is sure to speak out again on other bills honoring athletics.

And if the bookies handicapped these votes, they’d tell Chaffetz that the odds are against him getting much traction.