Jaffe Report: Why Congress' Efforts to Bully the District May Fail

Harry Jaffe, a longtime chronicler of the people and politics of Washington, D.C., writes a column for NBC Washington's First Read DMV blog.

Two things have become uncomfortably clear a few weeks into the new, Trumpian political era.

1. Anyone who crosses Donald Trump gets the back of his hand, including, but hardly limited to, senators, foreign leaders, federal workers and actors who attempt to replace him on reality TV.

2. Congress has virtually total control over the District of Columbia, thanks to Article One, Section 8 of the Constitution, which gives Congress the power: "To exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever, over such District," meaning the District of Columbia.

Like it or not, random politicians like Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz or Florida's Marco Rubio can tell us how to spend our tax dollars, who can carry a gun, who can get an abortion or where we can walk our dogs.

Our founding fathers had it right in 1787, but that clause has outlived its time. More on that later.

Chaffetz is the current bully from another time zone who's taking time from serving his constituents to meddle with us in the District.

He's trying to kill D.C.'s Death With Dignity law and suggested that Maryland absorb the residential parts of the District -- but what he's really doing is interfering with local governance.

He follows in the steps of white supremacists like Mississippi Sen. Tom Bilbo who, as head of the Senate committee overseeing D.C. in 1944 said there were so many African Americans in the local government that "it's like a black cloud all around you."

He proposed African Americans be shipped back to Africa.

Let's not forget South Carolina Rep. John "Johnny Mack" McMillan, the segregationist who used the D.C. government as his plantation, hired his constituents to run it and killed any bills granting self-government to the District. President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Walter Washington mayor in 1967, and when he sent his first budget to Congress, McMillan sent a truckload of watermelons to his office.

Every Congress turns up one or two representatives who feel the need to boss around the District. In the 1980s, North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms tried to outlaw abortions in D.C. Last year, Maryland Rep. Andy Harris tried to kill D.C.'s efforts to legalize marijuana. Rubio has reintroduced his bill from last session to wipe out the District's gun laws so virtually anyone could carry automatic weapons in the nation's capital.

Now Chaffetz, who chairs the House Oversight Committee, wants to throw out the District's medical aid in dying act.

I have a few reasons to believe Chaffetz will fail not just in killing our Death With Dignity law but in his general impulse to govern the District from Congress.

First, there's humiliation.

When Chaffetz this week suggested that Maryland absorb the residential parts of the District, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton retorted: "Has the chairman ever asked anyone from the state of Maryland how they feel about that?"

Chaffetz almost got laughed out of the room. An article this week in the Salt Lake Tribune, his hometown paper, allowed D.C. council member Charles Allen to ridicule him for not picking up his trash.

Norton remains the District's best asset. Though she has no voting power, the longtime representative has fought back noxious legislation for decades.

Another reason for optimism that Chaffetz or any legislator might fail in overriding D.C. laws is that Mayor Muriel Bowser is the first mayor to set up a serious federal government lobbying operation.

Bowser realized that every state and most major cities had offices in the District dedicated to protecting their interests. She tapped Beverly Perry, her senior adviser, to build a team inside the government.

"Be creative," Perry said the mayor advised.

So Perry, a seasoned lobbyist who had worked for Pepco, put together a staff of seven to advocate for the District in Congress and federal agencies. She told me Congress feels "emboldened" now that it controls the House, Senate and White House, but it might not be bad for D.C.

"It might work in our favor," she said.

She's hoping President Trump might help the District cut through bureaucratic obstacles to free federal property like Franklin Square from the U.S. Park Service.

"I don't see Republicans or Democrats," she tells me. "I want to know who has power I need now and how do I get it."

Perry operates like an old school lobbyist, catering to congressmen and their staffs as if they were constituents. She will fix their streetlights, take them to Georgetown basketball games, and help them navigate the D.C. government.

"You don't have to sacrifice you values to accomplish your task," she said.

Perry's goals in this Congress are largely monetary. She's seeking more funds for Metro and continued congressional support for education programs, especially the tuition assistance grants for District students attending state colleges.

There's another reason to believe Jason Chaffetz and other members of Congress meddling in D.C. will fail.

The mechanics of disapproving a D.C. bill or passing legislating that applies strictly to D.C. are complicated. Congress has 30 days to review and overturn a District law. In the case of the Death With Dignity Act, Chaffetz fulminated against it, but he delayed marking up the bill and has not set a date for moving it forward. The clock runs out Feb. 17, according to D.C. council members, at which point it will become law.

There's more: Any changes or additions to D.C. laws must pass the Senate and get a presidential signature. The Senate has had less interest in micromanaging the District.

Which brings me back to the Constitution.

The founding fathers had reason to believe that the newly created federal enclave should be run by Congress, rather than the surrounding states. In 1787, the seat of the federal government was a swampy intersection of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers. There was no city and no inhabitants.

But 230 years later, we inhabit a robust urban center with 680,000 residents around the U.S. Capitol, White House and federal agencies. We pay taxes, fight wars, vote for president.

Short of statehood, the Constitution needs to be amended to give the District complete independence from Congress. Then Jason Chaffetz could spend his time focusing on the people who elected him -- in Utah.

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