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.

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION - By Lau­ren Rosen­blatt lau­ren.rosen­blatt@latimes.com

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.

Alex Wong Getty Im­ages

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.

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