D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton usually gets along well with her Democratic colleagues in Virginia and Maryland. But on the issue of a commuter tax for those who work in D.C. and live elsewhere, Norton is on her own.
A commuter tax for the District of Columbia could reappear on the Congressional agenda later this year, but Maryland and Virginia Democrats — typically staunch supporters of the District — feel the same way they did when the issue came up several years ago: They hate the idea.
“Not supportive,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) said. “That’s a position Maryland and Virginia has had for years.”
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the D.C.-focused Oversight and Government Reform Committee, mentioned his interest in again exploring the concept at a hearing Thursday on the Height Act, which governs the size of the city’s buildings.
“I think we should, after the election, start thinking about how we’re going to deal with the only place that doesn’t have the ability to tax people who earn their income in that place,” Issa said almost as an aside.
Later, Issa said he was coming from “a standpoint of fairness, but also from the standpoint of removing the incentive to commute out of the city while working in the city.”
The Home Rule Act of 1973 prohibits the District from imposing a commuter tax unless Congress passes legislation to allow it.
Issa’s formal endorsement would carry some weight, but it would still be a tough sell to his colleagues who have been down this road before.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld the ban in 2005; around that time local officials considered pushing a referendum to revise the Home Rule charter to reverse the prohibition.
Virginia and Maryland lawmakers on Capitol Hill pledged to fight such efforts at the time. Some of the players have changed in the intervening years, but their views haven’t.
“It’s counterproductive,” Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) said. “People should be able to live where they want to and work where they want to and not be penalized.”
“The argument is that the federal government’s presence puts an undue burden on the District of Columbia,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who represents parts of Fairfax and Prince William counties. “Well, tell you what. The suburbs are more than happy to take that burden off your hands. ... But the last time we had that discussion, [Del.] Eleanor Holmes Norton and other members of the D.C. government had a hissy fit that any federal agency would not be located in the nation’s capital itself. You can’t have it both ways.”
One alternative for adding to the city’s coffers gets a friendlier reception from the region’s Congressional Democrats.
In the past, some have endorsed the idea of the federal government giving the District annual payments to offset what they call the “structural imbalance” caused, in part, by the city’s limited tax base.
These Democrats say that at the end of the day, Norton, a fellow Democrat and D.C.’s nonvoting delegate to Congress, probably appreciates their situation.
“I think Eleanor understands that I want to be helpful to her while being respectful of my constituents’ point of view,” said Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), who represents Arlington, Alexandria and part of Fairfax County.
Opposition from outside the city isn’t likely to stop Norton from challenging the status quo.
Speaking with reporters at the conclusion of Thursday’s hearing, Issa mentioned there was flexibility to revise the Height Act. The law, he said, “did not come down on stone tablets.”
“But the commuter tax did,” Norton said. “And those tablets came from Maryland and Virginia.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.