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When Rep. Darrell Issa outlined his agenda just days after the Republican victory in 2010 assured him of the chairmanship of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, he highlighted stimulus spending and the health care overhaul as investigative targets.
D.C. autonomy wasn’t on the list.
But the California Republican’s relationship with former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) — a mentor and friend who chaired the committee from 2003 to 2007 — has helped make him an unlikely champion of budget independence for the District of Columbia.
“Darrell is a very smart guy, and he’s a principled guy, and he recognizes the District’s plight,” Davis said, “that this is the capital of the free world, it is not representative of Congress, and Congress shouldn’t try bullying it around. We’ve got to respect local authority.”
Congress passed legislation in 1995 creating a now-disbanded “control board” that saved the District from financial ruin. As chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee in the 109th Congress, Davis — who represented the D.C. suburbs in Northern Virginia from 1995 to 2008 and is now director of federal government affairs at Deloitte — shepherded a bill that would have secured a Congressional seat for the District, a measure Issa supported.
On D.C. issues, Davis “was a powerhouse,” Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said. “He did not go out of his way to look for ways to stand in the way of the District, or make life difficult for the District. … He wanted to make things happen.”
When Davis retired and Issa became ranking member of the panel, the Californian kept on several members of Davis’ staff who were well-informed on D.C. issues. It also was from Davis that Issa developed his philosophy about what Congress’ relationship with the District should entail.
“When it was time for me to leave, we had lined Darrell up to take my spot as ranking member, and now chairman, and I think his heart is good,” Davis said.
Today, Issa describes himself as D.C.’s “governor.”
“I have the right and the obligation to intervene if something is grossly wrong,” he said, “but I also have an obligation to realize that if I try to run [the District], I’ll certainly run it poorly. That’s the way I view it, and that’s the way Tom Davis viewed it.”
Despite his favorable views on D.C. autonomy, Issa got off to a sketchy start in his relations with the city.
When shepherding Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) D.C. school voucher bill through committee in March, Norton accused Issa of working against the will of residents.
A few months later, Issa launched an investigation into allegations of ethics violations on the mayor’s staff despite a simultaneous effort being undertaken by local officials.
But he earned some good will in November by postponing action on a bill that would restructure the city government’s hiring practices after Council Chairman Kwame Brown asked Issa to let the council move on its own legislation, which it passed last week.
The seed of Issa’s plan to give the District of Columbia control over its own budget was planted at a May hearing.
Issa said he wanted to introduce a bill that would unlink the D.C. budget from the Congressional appropriations process, allowing the district to control its own funds like any other city and change its fiscal year to start in July, allowing it to better prepare for the school year.
Perhaps most crucially, budget independence would spare the city from the anxiety of a shutdown every time Congress appears unable to strike a spending deal.
“Wow,” was what Norton says she remembers thinking at the time.
If signed into law, the measure would be the single most important piece of legislation for D.C. since the Home Rule Act of 1973, which gave the District more autonomy.
It also could signal that while lawmakers may not be willing to grant D.C. statehood, they might agree that the city is now in good enough shape to take on the responsibility of controlling its own money.
“When he became chair, I didn’t know where he would come out on District issues because he didn’t have much of a history,” Norton said. “And true to form, he has been unpredictable.”
Given the GOP’s history of using D.C. as a petri dish of sorts for social policy riders, Democrats were wary.
“I think he’s shocked a lot of people,” said Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), who in the 111th Congress was chairman to Issa’s ranking member.
Confidence in D.C. Finances
Whatever Issa’s motivations, external circumstances are working in his favor.
Nearly 16 years ago, D.C. was spiraling toward bankruptcy. Despite local officials’ concerns about Congressional paternalism, even Norton endorsed taking away the reins of the city’s finances from the mayor and placing them in the hands of an outside board.
The “control board” worked, and the city’s finances rebounded to the point where the board was disbanded in 2001. The District government has produced balanced budgets in each fiscal year since then, and experts say its finances are now run better than most cities.
“I guarantee you that [Issa] would not be talking about budget autonomy if he did not believe in the leadership of the city,” Brown said. “Why would he go out on a limb to talk about budget autonomy for leaders … he thought were running the city into the ground?”
“This is the cold logic of a smart man hearing every witness say, ‘These people manage their budget better than anybody we know,’” Norton said.
And then there are the federal government’s finances.
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.”
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.
“They could have had voting rights, but they were nervous about the gun thing,” Davis said of the 2007 and 2009 losses. “You never get the perfect bill. … Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”