House Republicans have shown their interest in micromanaging the municipal affairs of Washington, D.C., time and again. The range of their interests may soon get stretched again.
For the past two decades, these crusades have been all about making the nation’s capital a sort of social policy Petri dish in which to experiment on such hot-button issues as charter schools, gun control, abortion rights, medical marijuana and needle exchanges for drug addicts.
Now, the shifting interests of the House GOP’s tea party generation are about to land on a new target: The city’s speed cameras.
Rep. Kerry Bentivolio, a conservative freshman from the outer Detroit suburbs, is known best around town as the new congressman with the quirkiest résumé, which includes stints as a reindeer rancher and Santa Claus impersonator. But he’s about to introduce, as one of his first bills, a measure that would turn off the legions of cameras around the city that document drivers speeding and running red lights, and which generate about $90 million a year in ticket payments in the process.
At first blush, seeking a federal rewrite of one local traffic ordinance would seem about the farthest thing imaginable from small-government conservatism. But there’s also a widening libertarian streak in the House Republican Conference, and these members say the cameras are a pernicious Big Brother intrusion into everyday life that could lead to improper government snooping into our lives and already guarantee a lack of due process for motorists. Legislation to restrict their use has been enacted in a dozen states.
(Bentivolio says personal animus has nothing to do with it, because he doesn’t even have a car in Washington and so hasn’t received any grainy photos and tickets in the mail.)
So far, only two other tea party types have signed on to the bill, Steve Stockman of Texas and David Schweickert of Arizona, suggesting not much of a groundswell of support. But, if the appropriations bill that covers the federal payments to the capital city comes before the House this year (which at this point looks unlikely), offering an amendment to block any spending on D.C. speed cameras would probably be permitted.
And a lopsided majority of Republicans, eager to take a stand for civil liberties without annoying anyone at city halls in their own districts, could vote for it. It would then be up to the Senate to laugh off the idea, which is very likely.
This was the topic of my most recent appearance on WAMU, the NPR station in Washington. You can listen here or read about it here.