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Impending Fight Over D.C. Funds Takes First Step

Serrano criticized the D.C. riders. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

With the appropriations process in full swing, the District of Columbia faces impending congressional attempts to wield power over the District's federal and local funds.  

On Thursday, the House Financial Services Appropriations Subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over D.C., approved the draft of its bill that contained a familiar host of policy riders dictating how the District can spend its federal and local funds. The riders drew the ire of the subcommittee's ranking member, Rep. José E. Serrano, D-N.Y. "I did not run for Washington, D.C. City Council. I ran for the U.S. Congress," Serrano said. "I think what happens, not necessarily in this committee, but throughout this Congress, is you have a lot of people who can’t get certain issues back home, but they get them on D.C."  

The appropriations bill allocates $678 million in federal funds to D.C. for fiscal 2016. It also includes provisions regarding how D.C. can spend that money, including a prohibition on funds for abortion and bans on the use of federal funds for needle exchanges or further action on marijuana legalization.  

Congress attempted to block the District's marijuana legalization initiative during the appropriations process last year, leading to a confrontation between the District government and lawmakers over the rider's interpretation. Congress inserted a similar rider in the most recent bill, aiming to block the regulation of marijuana.  

The architect of last year's marijuana rider, Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., told CQ Roll Call Wednesday he did not anticipate any additional action relating to the District's cannabis policy.  

"Our language did not allow them to actually do licensing on regulation," Harris said outside the House floor. “I believe we’re going to have the same language and Congress believes that language has already blocked legalization. If D.C. wants to choose that interpretation, they just better hope the next attorney general agrees with them.  

“We don’t need anything else," he added. "That language is adequate." Harris said the conflict over whether the District could move forward with legalization is now an issue for the courts and the attorney general.  

Rep. Ander Crenshaw, R-Fla., who chairs the appropriations subcommittee, said after the meeting Thursday he did not know whether there would be additional attempts to affect the District's marijuana policy, but he "wouldn't be surprised" if there were.  

“There’s a unique relationship between Washington and the District of Columbia," Crenshaw said, when asked about Serrano's criticism of the riders. "And I think the things that we’ve done in the past, we continue to do. As it relates to the budget, we tend to look at the budget and say, 'You can spend your dollars and we’ll approve those.' But there are issues that I think our members have that relate to that unique relationship, so that’s why we do it.”  

Another issue that could arise as the appropriations process moves forward relates to the District's Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Amendment Act, which aimed to combat employer discrimination based on reproductive health decisions. The House took a largely symbolic vote to block the RHNDAA , activating for the first time in nearly 25 years the formal process to block D.C. laws.  

With an unsuccessful attempt to block the D.C. law, House conservatives called for a rider in the D.C. appropriations bill to prohibit funds from being used to implement the law.  

The bill is expected to be taken up by the full committee next week, but D.C.'s non-voting representative in Congress, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton is readying a fight against the current and potential riders.  

"With a Republican House majority, the bill is what we expected,” Norton said in a Wednesday statement. “However, this Congress, Republicans in the House and Senate have attacked D.C. home rule more than we have seen in decades, so we are preparing for multiple attacks as the bill goes to the full committee and then the floor."  

Norton vowed to force a floor vote on each rider to put members of Congress on the record voting for or against each provision. Crenshaw said that is her prerogative.  

“That’s the democratic process," Crenshaw said. "That’s why we have subcommittee meetings and full committee meetings and why we go to the floor, so people can vote according to their beliefs, conscience, etc.”

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