Democrats retained control of the D.C. Council in Tuesday’s elections, but the District’s other governing council, the United States Congress, will be back in Republican hands. That could mean some changes for the city.
No, Home Rule won’t be repealed and the Control Board won’t be revived. Despite the rhetoric from Adrian Fenty die-hards, Finally-Mayor-Elect Vincent Gray is not Marion Barry. But the Republican leadership in the next Congress will have tactical reasons to meddle in local District affairs.
The GOP House leadership is conservative but establishment, and contains no Tea Party insurgents. The House will also have to work with a Democratic Senate. And, of course, Barack Obama is still president. That means that whatever comes out of Congress in the next two years -- if anything -- will probably be incremental and somewhat moderate.
This will get the GOP base, and the Tea Party movement, mad, and John Boehner and Co. don’t want that going into a presidential election cycle. The GOP establishment is concerned a Tea Party-backed populist could run against the party machine in the presidential primaries and win, pitting an unelectable Republican against an otherwise-vulnerable Obama.
So, what will the GOP Congress do? Token stuff intended to keep the right wing in line.
The Tea Party itself, in as much as it has a defining ideology, is interested in reducing the size of government. But there is also a solid social conservative base in the party, which is in an uneasy alliance with this new movement. The Republican leadership could make these folks happy by going after things like gay marriage, medical marijuana, and needle exchange laws here in D.C.
Sure, such changes to the local laws of a city of 600,000 residents won’t do squat to change the lives of these GOP firebrands in deepest red America, but that’s not the point. Such actions would make it look like Boehner and his band are defending “traditional values” while they concentrate on what they really care about -- avoiding party fratricide that would result in Obama’s re-election.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, a gay marriage opponent, will become chairman of the House Subcommittee on Federal Workforce, Postal Service, and the District of Columbia -- making him D.C.’s quasi-mayor. Shadow Rep. Mike Panetta has called him a “meddler who does not let local decisions stand,” and D.C. Republican icon Carol Schwartz says Chaffetz might “roll back the very hard-won progress we’ve made under Home Rule.”
Chaffetz tried to force a referendum on the question of gay marriage in D.C., but failed. He also helped kill a bill that would have given D.C. a full seat in the House. Though the measure was of dubious constitutionality, it would have also given Chaffetz’s home state an extra seat -- and he squashed it anyway.
Unlike past D.C. congressional overlords like North Carolina Sen. Lauch Faircloth, Chaffetz genuinely likes the city. But therein lies the peril. In his lengthy October profile of our new boss in Washington City Paper, David Weigel wrote that Chaffetz “likes working on D.C. issues, because he’s fascinated by the role Congress has in guiding the city. Meddling in local laws is, for him, part of the attraction of his committee.”
This could mean a rough road ahead for local officials.
Follow P.J. Orvetti on Twitter at @PJOinDC