Stateline Story

Govs Win Greater Flag Powers

(Updated 1:40 p.m. EDT, July 2)

The governors of Maryland and Virginia and the mayor of the District of Columbia have won the rare authority to order American flags lowered at the White House, the Pentagon and other federal buildings around the nation's capital as a way of honoring local war dead.

With little fanfare, President Bush signed a bill that allows governors to order U.S. flags flown at half-staff at federal buildings in their states as a means of paying tribute to those killed in Iraq , Afghanistan and elsewhere. The measure - which Bush approved Friday but which wasn't made public until Monday (July 2) - treats the mayor of Washington , D.C. , as a governor.

It also thrusts the White House into a peculiar spot, physically and politically.

By signing the bill, the Republican Bush gives three local Democratic leaders - Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine and District of Columbia Mayor Adrian Fenty - the power to order flags lowered at high-profile federal sites across three jurisdictions, from the National Security Agency in Fort Meade, Md., and the Department of Defense in Arlington , Va. , to the U.S. Capitol in Washington . Lowering the flags would call attention to the 3,981 American military who have died in overseas fighting.

Of course, Bush also could have vetoed the legislation - which Congress passed with overwhelming support but little debate - but that would have brought its own complications, according to analysts. The president would have been wielding his veto pen for only the fourth time since taking office in 2001, and the rejection of a flag bill only days before the country celebrates Independence Day could have caused significant political fallout, especially among veterans.

So far, O'Malley and Kaine have not joined a number of governors across the country who lower U.S. flags for those killed in action; both governors do lower state flags to honor war dead. Fenty still is developing a policy for lowering flags, according to a spokeswoman, who said the mayor has not yet decided whether to include federal buildings in his policy.

Despite the new law, federal officials in and around Washington , D.C. , still could ignore flag orders from O'Malley, Kaine and Fenty. The measure amends the U.S. flag code, which offers guidelines on the treatment of the Stars and Stripes, but does not carry penalties for noncompliance. But it would be unusual for an administration not to abide by a code established in 1923, according to Mike Buss, a flag expert at the American Legion.

U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak (D) of Michigan , the author of the legislation, said he drafted it because federal buildings in his state did not obey orders from Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) to fly American flags at half-staff when soldiers are killed. In an interview with Stateline.org , he said that the legislation was not politically motivated and that it wasn't too much to ask the White House to lower its flag for local fallen soldiers.

"It's not the state or the federal government we're honoring here. It's the person who died," Stupak said. "I hope they would look at it with respect to the families."

State policies on lowering flags vary considerably, even in the national capital region. O'Malley orders state flags to be flown at half-staff from sunrise to sunset on the day of interment for those killed in action, according to an administration spokeswoman. Kaine also orders only state flags lowered, but only in the locality of the soldier who died, according to a state Web site.