The Congressional Gold Medal: How Golden Achievements are Awarded

George Washington, Walt Disney and Mother Teresa share a common bond.  Not only did their life achievements and contributions change America, and the world as we know it, but their accomplishments earned them a spot in an elite group of former presidents, war heroes, comedians and astronauts, just to name a few, all of whom have made their mark in history.  They are the recipients of Congressional Gold Medals, the United States Congress’s highest and most distinguished civilian honor.

Awarding a Congressional Gold Medal takes bipartisan support and months, often years, of planning and development.  Tomorrow, Congress will award a gold medal to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in honor of her leadership and commitment to human rights.  In the spirit of Schoolhouse Rock, let’s take a closer look at how Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s recognition from Congress came to fruition to learn more about the history and significance of this prestigious award.

Just a Bill, Sitting Here on Capitol Hill

The process of awarding a Congressional Gold Medal begins with a bill and needs approval of both chambers.  The process begins when a Member of Congress introduces legislation and begins to collect co-sponsors.  H.R. 4286, the bill to award a Congressional Gold Medal to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, was introduced on December 5, 2007 by Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-NY).  All Gold Medal legislation must be cosponsored by at least two-thirds of the Members of the House or two-thirds of the Members of the Senate to move forward in their respective chambers.  H.R. 4286 was agreed to in the Senate on April 24, 2008.

Then It’s Off to the White House…For The President to Sign

Congressional Gold Medal legislation is no different from any other bill.  In order for plans to progress to award the honoree, the president must sign the bill into law.  On May 6, 2008, President George W. Bush signed H.R. 4286 into law, and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was on her way to receiving only the fifth Congressional Gold Medal ever awarded to a non-U.S. woman. 

He Signed You, Bill! Now You’re a Law! (And a Medal Too)

Once the legislation is enacted, officials from the United States Mint meet with sponsors of the legislation and members of the honoree’s family to discuss possible designs for the medal.  After sketches are considered, the Secretary of the Treasury, with the approval of the family, makes the final decision on the medal’s design.  It’s at that time the design is sculpted, a die is made and the medal is struck at the Philadelphia Mint.

Preparations for the medal presentation begin months in advance and involve several offices within the Capitol.  Because the legislation is bicameral and bipartisan, both chambers are active in planning the ceremony with the help of the Office of the Sergeant-at-Arms, Architect of the Capitol, Chief Administrative Office, Clerk of the House, Office of Congressional Accessibility Services, U.S. Capitol Police, U.S. Capitol Visitor Services, and rank-and-file member offices.

When plans are finalized and the medal is struck, the ceremony day arrives and the honoree is rightfully recognized in the presence of family and friends, as well as Members of Congress and other invited guests.  For example, United States Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Former First Lady of the United States Laura Bush will join congressional leaders in the Capitol Rotunda for this week’s ceremony.

You can watch Speaker Boehner deliver remarks at last year’s Gold Medal Ceremony honoring NASA astronauts John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin.  You can also view photos from previous ceremonies here and here and a closeup of a medal here.  And tune in tomorrow at 3:00 p.m. ET on to watch the ceremony for honoring Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

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