Sherwood’s Notebook: Congress Castrates Democracy

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It cannot be said any more plainly.

Last week, Congress castrated the D.C. Council, our mayor and the people of Washington by passing legislation intended to invalidate the city’s November vote to legalize marijuana.

(We say “intended” because there is an effort by the city to reinterpret the legislation.)

The popular vote of 115,050 citizens was summarily ignored and laughed off as Congress voted to overturn a local election. Only Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., gave an impassioned floor speech on behalf of District citizens.

Booker said that the “self-determination of peoples is at the core of our Democratic ideals as a nation. I believe it is an offense to Americans of all states.”

It wasn’t just conservative Republicans who allowed the amendment, but people like Maryland Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski, chairman for a few more weeks of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. And President Barack Obama.

The House Republican leadership had inserted language into a “must pass” budget bill denying the city the right to spend federal or local tax dollars on legalizing marijuana.

The Democrats, anxious to pass the budget, allowed the poisonous language to remain.

At week’s end, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton and the city’s attorney general were trying to find a loophole escape for the city. The amendment — called a rider — says that the city could spend no federal or local funds to “enact” the legislation. But Norton and some others say it came too late, that the law was enacted when the voters approved it.

“You’ve got to look closely at what they do,” Norton said Friday on the WAMU 88.5 Politics Hour. “And in their rush to do it, I believe they have made a mistake.”

Norton especially noted that Congress had dropped language preventing the city from “carrying out” any such law.

But whether or not the city is seizing a thin reed in this battle, there is more to the story.

When a whole city is disenfranchised, where is the outrage? Fewer than a dozen demonstrators descended on the offices of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid last week.

A few years ago, when Congress had passed legislation banning the use of any federal or local funds to support needle exchanges for drug users, the city turned to private, nonprofit groups. And Mayor Vincent Gray last year busted up a Reid news conference on Capitol Hill to avoid closing the city during the federal government shutdown.

But now, Gray, who is just weeks from leaving office, is strangely silent. Both at a ceremony accepting some federal land at Walter Reed and at a news conference on financing the soccer stadium, the mayor passed up chances to call out the wrongdoers in both parties.
Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser didn’t appear very outraged either.

In a brief talk at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments luncheon last week, Bowser first mentioned regionalism and traffic and air pollution and public safety and homelessness and the Olympics. And when she did get to the congressional affront, she never specifically asked the room full of congressmen and local elected officials to lift a hand to protect the District’s right to its own local legislation.

“We also want to make sure the Congress recognizes the people of the District of Columbia and their will,” she finally said, adding that she and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson would “reach out” for help from suburbanites.

■ Where’s President Obama? The president’s White House agreed to the marijuana rider. WAMU reporter Martin Austermuhle filed a story recalling that Obama had publicly supported the city’s earlier legislation to decriminalize marijuana. But the White House wasn’t standing up for the city’s right to pass its own laws without undue interference from Congress.

One caller to the WAMU program on Friday asked what District citizens could do. Norton responded that “we do need more activism.”

You might say we need it from a lot of people, in office or not.

■ The soccer vote. The D.C. Council will pass the final version of the new soccer stadium deal on Wednesday. The council was scheduled to meet and vote on Tuesday, but Chairman Mendelson agreed to postpone the vote until Wednesday. That allowed Mayor-elect Bowser to travel on Monday to Los Angeles, where the U.S. Olympic Committee was hearing bids from the District, Boston, Los Angeles and San Francisco on which city would get to represent the USA in the world competition for the 2024 Olympics.

Tom Sherwood, a Southwest resident, is a political reporter for News 4.

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