D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray walked into a Capitol Hill hearing room last week unsure if he would face an ugly clash with the Republicans who run the House. They haven’t been very friendly to our city.
The hiring scandal that has dogged Gray’s early months in office has cast a thin but palpable cloud over the mayor. The D.C. Council’s recent Lorraine Green/Sulaimon Brown hearing seemed to indicate that something was wrong, even if it’s not clear yet exactly what.
Meanwhile, Gray has promoted continuing demonstrations and arrests on Capitol Hill to protest how Republicans are treating the city.
It didn’t help that Council Chairman Kwame Brown sat next to Gray during Thursday’s hearing, before the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Brown has had his own scandal, over campaign finances, not to mention the flap over his “fully loaded” sports utility vehicles.
The GOP leaders, with President Barack Obama’s acquiescence, have already blocked the city’s spending on abortions, and they tried to end the anti-drug needle distribution program.
D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton came in frowning, ready for the fight.
But it didn’t happen.
On NBCWashington.com last week, we reported that the hearing was a “man bites dog” surprise, with the committee receiving the city politely. The GOP members asked about school vouchers, public safety and Medicaid spending.
And then, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., showed up. The committee chair appeared sympathetic to the city on a key issue -- the local impact of a federal government shutdown.
Issa said he would craft legislation that would exempt the District from a shutdown in the event that Congress and the president can’t reach agreement on the federal budget. Just weeks ago, the city spent tens of thousands of dollars in time and resources preparing for a shutdown that was narrowly avoided -- but could still occur.
Issa said he agreed with city officials that the federal policy fight should not handcuff the local government, as long as the District has enough local tax money to continue operating.
Mayor Gray said it does, noting that of the city’s $9 billion budget, almost $6 billion comes from local taxpayers. Gray was backed up by both the city’s chief financial officer, Natwar Gandhi, and Brookings Institution expert Alice Rivlin, who served as one of the chairs of the federal control board that ruled the city in the late 1990s.
Rivlin and Gandhi testified that the District government, despite being unable to tax federal and nonprofit land or nonresident income, is financially sound. It ought to have more budget autonomy all the time, not just during a federal shutdown, they said.
“Compared to other cities,” Rivlin said, “the D.C. economy is actually doing quite well. Jobs are up, population is growing, economic development is resuming and city revenues are beginning to edge up again.”
Gray left the hearing appearing both satisfied and relieved. “It wasn’t negative at all,” Gray told NBC4 confidently. “We can manage ourselves at the local level.”
We retell the story from last week because several city officials said it was a good sign that the city and Congress got past -- at least for a little while -- the irritations between the two governments.
They said it’s a chance for Gray to reset his relations with the House Republicans. There have been previous private meetings in which Gray has tried to guide the GOP’s thinking about the capital city. But maybe nothing helps more than to have a congressional hearing where the GOP doesn’t take easy potshots at us.
• Hill “security.”
Last week’s hearing gave us a reason to visit Capitol Hill and experience (or suffer) its bunker mentality. It still pains us to see all the side streets closed off with massive, ugly security barriers that clump up and down.
It looks more like an armed camp than the seat of government of the freest nation on earth.
And we couldn’t help but notice that in the name of “security,” all those closed side streets that used to be open to tourists and others are now just free parking lots for staff members and other select workers on the Hill.
And, of course, the majority of the license tags are from Maryland and Virginia. That’s another free perk for commuters who don’t pay income taxes here.
• The budget battle.
On Monday, Council Chairman Brown called all his colleagues into a small meeting room to hash out policy for the 2012 budget. Will there be tax increases on higher income citizens? Will money be found for homeless services that were previously federally funded? Will the city roll back parking meter fees?
The meeting went on for hours. It provided great tweeting opportunities for reporters, who commented on policy, on what members were wearing and even on brief spats between members.
But no votes were taken. Those will come next week.
• Jack Evans at 20.
Ward 2 Council member Jack Evans last week celebrated his 20th year on the council. Evans, now the longest-serving member currently on the council, replaced John A. Wilson after the ward’s longtime representative became D.C. Council chairman. Evans is widely respected for his financial knowledge, but his colleagues don’t always follow his budget and tax advice. Still, 20 years is 20 years. He must be doing something right.
• What? Already?
The D.C. Democratic Party is already assembling its delegate selection plan for the 2012 presidential convention. The city will send 39 delegates and four alternates to the party’s big to-do in Charlotte, N.C. Any registered Democratic voter can participate.
And you can find out more by visiting dcdsc.org or contacting firstname.lastname@example.org.