John got a performing arts center. Robert got a stadium. What about Ted? Is there a building, bridge, or international airport in or around Washington just waiting for the senator’s name to be etched onto it?
There’s no shortage of unnamed federal buildings. The General Services Administration, which manages federal property, oversees 96 million square feet of space in Washington alone. But a lot of the real estate still up for grabs houses the sorts of agencies you may not want your dearly departed to be associated with. The new headquarters of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, for example, doesn’t have a name. Neither does the Department of the Interior.
Given Kennedy’s devotion to health care reform, maybe it would be appropriate to get his name inscribed on the Department of Health and Human Services building. Unfortunately, HHS HQ was nabbed in 1977 by Hubert Humphrey, a former senator and vice president. But a little farther from the Capitol, the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., is nameless. (Several of its buildings or auditoriums are named for people, but the campus itself is creatively referred to as “the campus.”) And the Food and Drug Administration is moving to new headquarters at the White Oak Research Center in Maryland, which will be home to several huge, as-yet-unnamed buildings.
Naming a federal building literally requires an act of Congress. If the House, Senate, and president approve a proposed name change, the GSA takes over. Its officials confer with the people actually using the building, and together they come up with a plan for new signs inside and out. Before any chisel hits granite, the plans have to be approved by the National Capitol Planning Commission and the Commission of Fine Arts.
For the feds, there’s a distinction between naming a building after someone and making a building a memorial to someone. The Kennedy Center, with its bust of JFK in the Grand Foyer, is technically a memorial to the former president. The Ronald Reagan Building, with the Gipper’s name on the outside but not much else, is not. If a naming is part of a hybrid memorial/building like the Kennedy Center, the National Capital Memorial Advisory Commission will be involved in the name change as well.
Despite the layers of bureaucracy, the process is generally smooth. Most proposed name changes are approved by huge majorities in Congress, and the GSA, the NCPC, and the CFA all get along fairly well. Tempers can flare, however, when name changes are attempted in honor of highly partisan figures. Republican success in renaming Washington’s airport for Ronald Reagan—not a beloved figure in the air-traffic controllers’ union—caused some heartburn among Democrats 11 years ago. (Kennedy voted in favor of the change.)
But with a Democratic Congress and president, the senator’s supporters shouldn’t have much trouble getting something named in his honor. And even if Congress can’t agree on a building that’s worthy of the late statesman, they can always take the advice of Rush Limbaugh—and Sen. Robert Byrd—and put his name on the health care reform bill.