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Issa Proves Active on Empowering District of Columbia

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa is heavily involved with issues regarding the District of Columbia, and he has surprised many colleagues by moving aggressively on D.C. autonomy.

Issa’s hearing on the city’s budget came on the heels of the first of multiple government shutdown threats that arose in 2011. Each time, the District had to scramble to prepare for the possibility that city operations would have to cease.

“That day has never really come, but it could,” Issa said. “We’ve got to fix this because [D.C.’s] problem is our making, and … it is our federal city. We shouldn’t be giving it problems.”

Challenges Ahead

Although the first impulse for Norton and local officials might be to embrace Issa’s budget autonomy proposal, the ever-present threat of unwanted policy riders could derail any deal.

The voting rights bill in 2009 was killed in the House by fears that Republicans would demand inclusion of language repealing the District’s semiautomatic weapons ban and barring local officials from passing new gun control laws. In 2007, the House did pass a voting rights bill, but only after pulling the legislation the first time around because of Republicans’ intent to insert such language. The bill went on to die in the Senate.

The six-month spending deal passed in April included a ban on using local funds to pay for abortions.

The same abortion language was part of draft legislation Issa unveiled in November — the chairman argued that including it would be the only way to bring along enough Members to back the bill.

Former Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) suggested that most Congressional Democrats would react negatively to such a trade-off.

“Budget autonomy is a good sign, but taking away [D.C. residents’] ability to decide something as fundamental as how they can use their funds is not giving them autonomy,” he said.

Norton, Brown and Mayor Vincent Gray rejected the measure “with regret,” and Issa has gone back to the drawing board.

Davis is pitching in, meeting with House Republicans to “try to understand what the problems are.”

Issa, engaging in his own discussions with lawmakers, is hoping to have a bill ready for the next committee markup that could move through the legislative pipeline with local blessing.

Senior local officials hope riders won’t be necessary to pass a budget autonomy bill, but they are silent on whether they would be willing to compromise. They could decide that budget autonomy is too important to pass up and that this window for passage, once closed, might not open again for quite a while.

Anything less than a straight autonomy bill could put them at odds with influential interest groups. DC Vote Executive Director Ilir Zherka said his organization would not accept any bill that includes policy riders.

“I think there’s a way for Issa to be a champion without compromising himself, without having to be the person who says, ‘These are the things Congress is going to do for D.C. to get further rights,’” Zherka said, adding that Issa should meet with local activists.

“Davis spoke to everyone,” Zherka said, drawing a distinction between the two men where others have been inclined to invoke similarities.

Issa also invoked Davis for his purposes, harking back to something Davis liked to say when he was chairman: “The District needs to get better at taking a win.”

Years later, Davis still thinks that’s true.

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