Washington’s struggle for self-rule
A clash over wet wipes, of all things, is the latest front in the District of Columbia’s battle with Congress.
WASHINGTON — When local officials in Washington declared war on “fatbergs” — floating white clumps of flushed wet wipes that were clogging the district’s sewage system — they ran into a familiar obstacle: Congress.
A Maryland congressman, exercising a right enshrined in the Constitution, moved to prevent local officials from enforcing the new law by trying to insert an amendment into an unrelated federal appropriations bill.
“Now,” said Paul Strauss, one of the district’s two nonvoting “shadow” senators, “they’re literally in our toilets.”
The battle over D.C.’s wet wipes would be laughable, local officials say, if the district didn’t have to overcome similar federal roadblocks every year, frequently over local laws involving abortion funding, gun control and reproductive rights.
Members of Congress have always had extraordinary power over the district, authority granted in the Constitution as a way to prevent the tiny capital city from exerting undue influence over the federal government and its workers.
D.C. activists, who have been fighting for statehood for decades, call the provision outdated and say it limits their representation.
The clashes over D.C. laws can be particularly intense when the mostly liberal and Democratic district faces a GOP-controlled Congress and White House.
“They pick and choose based on ideology; they think the district gives them a nice menu,” said D.C. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who has a seat in the House but cannot vote.
Norton said efforts to interfere in local laws were always a problem but had worsened in recent years, with a record 26 attempts to overturn D.C. laws in the last Congress. The current Congress is on a similar pace.
The clash over wet wipes marked one of the more surprising fights. The law, set to take effect in January, bans the sale of wet wipes in the district unless they are made of biodegradable materials and are non-buoyant. City officials complain that many wipes marketed as “flushable” end up damaging the district’s sewers, putting workers at risk and resulting in higher maintenance costs.
In a small victory for the district, Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), who had attempted to overturn the wet wipes law, withdrew his amendment.
But other battles are on the horizon, particularly as Congress continues to work and vote on must-pass government spending bills, which are frequently used as vehicles to block D.C. laws.
Other proposed amendments would prevent the district from using federal or local funds to provide abortion services to low-income residents, implement a needle exchange program for drug users, and regulate and tax marijuana.
Harris has offered a separate amendment to repeal D.C.’s medical-aid-in-dying law, which was officially enacted in July. The law allows physicians to prescribe lethal medication to terminally ill patients who have less than six months to live.
“Congress has the authority — and the responsibility — to oversee the operations of Washington, D.C., and the Death With Dignity Act was a well-intentioned but misguided policy that must be reversed,” Harris said in a statement.
Two other senators tried to pass a disapproval resolution for the act during the mandated congressional review period for D.C. laws but were unsuccessful.
Rep. Thomas Massie (RKy.) is also advocating a measure that would require D.C. to recognize conceal-and-carry firearm permits issued by other states. Progun lawmakers say they need to circumvent D.C.’s strict gun-control laws because of the security risk underscored by the recent shooting at a GOP congressional baseball practice in Virginia.
Norton said she was also keeping an eye out for possible challenges of two other D.C. bills — one that ensures employers don’t discriminate based on reproductive health and another that protects the rights of LGBTQ students.
The procedure for passing a law in D.C. is much like in any city or state — at the beginning of the process. But after the mayor and City Council pass legislation in D.C., it does not immediately become law.
Instead, there is a 30-day congressional review period, when the law can be overturned with a joint disapproval resolution from the House and the Senate, signed by the president.
Even if they survive that, D.C. bills are still subject to riders, amendments or stipulations tacked on to other federal laws that can limit the district’s authority to enforce or implement the local initiatives. These riders most often appear on appropriations bills, which outline annual federal spending on government agencies, departments and programs.
Activists consider statehood the most likely route to guaranteeing less interference and more representation in Congress.
But opponents say statehood would give district residents too much influence over legislators. Residents could “engage in actions to put pressure on members of Congress who live and work in the district on issues where it disagrees with what Congress is doing,” said Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation who has long been opposed to D.C. statehood.
To mitigate these concerns, the New Columbia Statehood Commission proposed state boundaries that would leave a separate federal district. In this Congress, the act for D.C. statehood has gained a record number of supporters, with 134 co-sponsors.
But since the district is predominantly Democratic, a bill granting statehood would be difficult to pass with a GOP-controlled Congress and Republican president.
REP. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON (D-D.C.) has a seat in the House but can’t vote. She said congressional efforts to interfere in District of Columbia laws were always a problem but had worsened in recent years.