Must we politicize the naming of US Navy vessels?

One story which didn’t receive a lot of play this week was a short lived effort in the House to regulate the naming of United States Navy ships. Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.) introduced an amendment to the defense spending bill which would restrict the honor of having a ship named after you to former presidents and those who have served in the military. The amendment wound up being rejected, but it caused a bit of a stir because the Secretary of the Navy recently announced plans to name a ship after Congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis. Coming from a Republican you can only imagine the accusations which were flying around that one. (Washington Post)

A House Republican introduced a measure Tuesday that would prevent the U.S. Navy from naming ships after lawmakers who have not served in the military or as president.

The measure would have prevented civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis and former Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin from receiving the honor but a House committee decided to pass up the opportunity to give the measure a vote in the full House.

The naming of ships or other government facilities after lawmakers sometimes has been controversial in recent years. Lewis’s status as a civil rights icon, which the Navy cited in its announcement, could have added more tension to the issue.

“Naming this ship after John Lewis is a fitting tribute to a man who has, from his youth, been at the forefront of progressive social and human rights movements in the U.S., directly shaping both the past and future of our nation,” Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said in a statement in January.

For his part, Palazzo said that the amendment had “nothing — absolutely zero — to do with John Lewis.” That may be true, but you know that’s how the Democrats will play it. But the real question here is whether or not Congress should be getting involved in the question in the first place. The problem is that we’re dealing with a subject which, like so many other things in the military, rides entirely on tradition and not on any history of legislation or constitutional requirements. Perhaps the better question is, what’s in a name?

Personally, I have no problem with – and actually support – the idea of keeping our ship naming in the realm of those who served with honor in the military. (Presidents count by virtue of having been Commander in Chief.) Over a few hundred years of battles, there is no shortage of names of military members whose names could be enshrined on the bows of our naval vessels. But the fact is that we’ve traditionally left that up to the Secretary of the Navy and we’ve already veered away from that tradition on a number of occasions.

Ray Mabus has, in my opinion, been something of a disaster in his post. He’s been politicizing the office at every opportunity, particularly when it comes to gender roles in combat and related topics, but he’s the guy we have for the time being. He’ll be gone soon enough if Hillary loses the election, so this too shall pass, as the saying goes. We went a bit overboard when we named a ship after Cesar Chavez, who is primarily known for his union activism, but at least he was in the Navy. Still, I doubt even the most controversial name is going to cause a ship to sink.

This isn’t an easy call, but without some defining previous legislation to fall back on, I’m not sure how we tackle this question. Should Congress institute rules regarding the naming of military equipment, bases and other such honors? But at the same time I’m torn. When we open the door to having living members of the legislative branch or other famous figures put into the mix, our two parties will immediately go to war over it. (As they already seem to be doing on a small scale.) What’s next? The USS Al Franken? How about some mine sweepers named after all the Kardashians?

Why do we have to make everything so complicated?