Tensions ran a little high in Rep. Andy Harris' office on Friday morning when D.C. Councilmember and mayoral hopeful David Catania showed up demanding to talk about the Maryland Republican's attempt to halt the District's marijuana decriminalization legislation.
Like most members of Congress, Harris was absent from Capitol Hill — back home in his district, according to deputy chief of staff Chris Meekins. Harris' scheduler and chief of staff were also absent when Catania came calling shortly after 8:30 a.m., Meekins said.
"I'm here to address what has become a congressional pastime, which is interfering in the local affairs of the District of Columbia," said Catania, who is campaigning as an independent for the November election. He told reporters, who were tipped off by a Thursday evening press release, that he would be in the Longworth House Office Building to ask "candidly" to talk about Harris' stated concerns about substance abuse problems and treatment.
Harris has pointed to high rates of drug use among D.C. residents and pot's harmful effect on children, among other arguments, to explain his rationale for proposing the appropriations bill amendment that prohibits D.C. from spending funds on enforcement laws to legalize or decriminalize pot.
“Since the congressman is so concerned about substance abuse and treatment — do you all happen to have his record on actually seeking resources for substance abuse and treatment nationally?” Catania pressed Meekins and the other staffers huddled in the reception area of Harris' office.
“Well, what I know is that the congressman is actually a medical physician that has spent decades working in these type of fields," Meekins responded, before Catania cut in to ask for details on his record as an appropriator.
“We are a relatively new member of the Appropriations Committee," Meekins acknowledged in reference to his boss, who was elected to Congress in 2010 and is the only Republican member of Maryland's congressional delegation.
Harris' office wrote the early morning visit off as "just another mayoral campaign prop," in a statement distributed to reporters that criticized Catania's candidacy.
"Passing marijuana decriminalization bills for teenagers is not the way to lower D.C.'s shamefully high rate of drug abuse among teenagers — and certainly not the way to create a job skill environment to deal with skyrocketing teen unemployment in the District, especially among minority youth," Harris said in the statement.
Meekins told Catania, who has been a member of the D.C. Council for 17 years, that he could request a meeting with the congressman via email "or submit stuff through the official website like anyone else does.”
"Why don’t we wait here while you place a call to the congressman?" Catania suggested. He also asked: “Did the congressman meet with any elected leadership of the District of Columbia before he offered this amendment?”
Harris confirmed his intention to introduce the amendment during Wednesday's markup of the spending bill that includes D.C.'s local budget to CQ Roll Call on Tuesday afternoon.
“I’d have to check on his schedule on that," Meekins said. "I don’t believe any requested.”
Officials in the D.C. attorney general's office have been closely scrutinizing the measure since it was approved by the committee on a 28-21 vote. The Washington Post reported that District lawyers are exploring whether Harris might have actually moved to, in effect, legalize marijuana possession instead of outlawing decriminalization.
Harris said in a statement to CQ Roll Call that he is "confident the intent of Congress is clear."
Meanwhile, Catania and other elected officials remain confident that the amendment will not survive a conference in the Democrat-controlled Senate or be signed by President Barack Obama. The decriminalization law, which will reduce possession of small amounts of marijuana from a criminal offense to a $25 civil citation, is likely to pass a 60-day congressional in mid-to-late July.
There was a brief moment of levity near the end of the terse eight-minute standoff when a young man wearing a congressional ID badge opened the door and Catania asked, "Are you his chief of staff?"
"I wish," replied the staffer, who was quickly identified as one of Harris' summer interns.
There was a round of laughter.
"What’s the likelihood we’ll get the meeting?" Catania asked before exiting the office.
Meekins told him that he'd “have to check, have to run it through the normal channels.”
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