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Incoming Committee Chairmen Talk D.C. Oversight

Chaffetz, right, will take over the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

When the 114th Congress begins its first session in January, Washington residents will have two new chairmen at the top of committees with jurisdiction over the District.  

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, won a four-way contest for the Oversight and Government Reform gavel on Nov. 18. Two days later, he met briefly with Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., to lay the groundwork for a working relationship.  

"I’m going to work closely with Eleanor Holmes Norton," Chaffetz told CQ Roll Call. "I told her I need to get my feet under me a little bit, but I want to come sit down with her in December and kind of map out issues that are important to her and things that we should address.” In a statement, Norton expressed optimism that Chaffetz would continue the tradition of staying out of District affairs. The Utah Republican acknowledged that members of Congress "have a role to play" in oversight over the District, and said he does not expect the committee to interfere unless in an unusual circumstance.  

"As long as the waters are calm and budgets are being dealt with responsibly, I don’t think you’ll see it on our agenda very often," Chaffetz said. "If something flares up unexpectedly and there’s corruption or major financial problems, I’m sure we’ll address them.”  

In the Senate, the likely incoming chairman of the committee with authority over D.C. shares Chaffetz's hands-off philosophy.  

"I’m somebody who really thinks the federal government should be very limited and where governing is best close to the governed," Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., who is expected to take the gavel of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said Nov. 19. "You know, I really look for local control as much as possible so I’ll try and — unless there’s some real massive imperative — to let D.C. governance take care of itself.”  

One of the first D.C. issues Johnson and Chaffetz will confront as chairmen is how to address marijuana legalization in the District. In November, voters overwhelmingly supported a ballot initiative to legalize small amounts of marijuana .  

After the election results are certified Wednesday, the D.C. Council is expected to transmit the bill to Congress in January, giving federal lawmakers 30 days to review the bill. Congress could move to block legalization through provisions of the Home Rule Act or by attaching a rider to the District appropriations bill.  

Both Chaffetz and Johnson are personally against the recreational use of marijuana, but Johnson indicated that he would be open to holding a hearing  to examine how legalization is playing out in the four states that passed similar measures.  

Though the incoming chairmen do not expect District matters to dominate their agendas, they both pointed to D.C. education policies as areas where Congress could play a role.  

Chaffetz said one issue he is planning to address in the next Congress is the reauthorization of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which grants educational scholarships for students in grades K-12.  

"The D.C. opportunity scholarships is one issue that will for sure come up in the 114th Congress that’s in need of reauthorization ... and I think you’ll see at least one hearing and a reauthorization of that bill,” Chaffetz said.  

Johnson also said he could envision getting involved in education policy, and more specifically the school voucher program.  

"I hate to see the fact that they eviscerated their voucher program," he said. "So if there’s some things we can do, legislative, here to try and allow freedom in D.C., allow parents to have their kids have access to good education, I think that’s something that I wouldn’t mind trying to get into those a little bit."  

But Johnson noted that such policies would likely not be addressed in specific legislation out of his committee.  "We try to do that during the appropriations process," said Johnson. "That might be the most appropriate place.  

The Wisconsin Republican is also taking the gavel of the committee that held the first hearing on D.C. statehood in two decades. But Johnson does not agree with outgoing Chairman Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., that the District should become a state.  

“I think the way this is set up in the Constitution works just fine," said Johnson. "I wouldn’t change that.”  

Chaffetz, on the other hand, believes the District should become a part of Maryland, but said the issue will not be a part of his agenda.  

“Not going to happen. No way," said Chaffetz when asked about the possibility of D.C. becoming its own state.  

"If they want representation in Congress, then we should retrocede the residential areas of Washington, D.C., to Maryland," Chaffetz added. "That’s not something I’m going to be proactively pursuing, but when this came up in my first term, that’s the position I took and I see no reason to change that position."  

Related: Ron Johnson Open to Senate Hearing on Marijuana Legalization D.C. Faces Statehood, Marijuana Challenges With GOP Congress How Will GOP Approach D.C.’s Marijuana Legalization? The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.