As is often the case in the fight for expanded autonomy and self-determination for the District of Columbia, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton experienced both a setback and a score in a 24-hour period.
On Thursday, she received the blow: The first recorded vote of the 113th Congress was to table, 224-187, her motion to require a formal study on whether there was any reason to deny the House’s six delegates the right to vote in the Committee of the Whole.
The privilege to vote on some legislative business and amendments on the House floor was afforded to the delegates in the 103rd, 110th and 111th Congresses, when Democrats were in the majority. When Republicans gained control of the House in 2010, they stripped delegates of that right.
“They are not members of Congress and they do not possess the same parliamentary rights afforded to members,” said Rules Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas, during debate on the rules package for the 113th Congress that excludes delegates from voting privileges. “That is an issue that I believe is well understood.”
Norton countered that federal district and appeals courts have, in fact, ruled that it is constitutional. “What is more painful and arbitrary than ... having a vote that you exercised withdrawn, as this vote was today?” Norton asked. “Three Congresses, we exercised that vote in the Committee of the Whole. No vote should be dependent on which party is in power.”
But on Wednesday, there was good news: Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who established himself in the 112th Congress as an unlikely champion for D.C. rights, will no longer give jurisdiction over D.C. affairs to a subcommittee of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which he chairs. Rather, all local matters will be considered by the full panel, under his watchful eye.
“I am delighted about this change,” Norton said in a statement Wednesday. “The direct involvement of a chairman who wants to strengthen the city and its presence in the Congress cannot be overemphasized.”
The full panel had jurisdiction of D.C. affairs in the 108th and 109th Congresses under the chairmanship of Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, R-Va., a mentor to Issa and close ally of Norton.
The Democratic delegate and local officials have learned over time to brace themselves against Capitol Hill lawmakers who might want to interfere with their independence by imposing new rules and regulations.
In the previous Congress, Issa was not the only Republican member on the D.C.-focused committee to strike a balance between being hands-off and lending a helping hand if needed: Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., then a freshman, was given the chairmanship of the subcommittee of jurisdiction and he quickly earned Norton’s respect.
When Gowdy announced recently that he would relinquish the subcommittee gavel to serve in a leadership position on the House Judiciary Committee, an Oversight and Government Reform Committee spokesman said Issa opted to take the reins of D.C. affairs at the full committee level for the sake of “continuity.”
It also just made sense, the spokesman continued, given Issa’s interest in the issues and his commitment to finishing what he began during the 112th Congress.
Issa has spent the past two years working to unlink D.C.’s budget from the congressional appropriations process and will likely continue that effort in the months ahead. He is awaiting the findings of a study he commissioned that will set the course for whether Congress can revisit the law governing the height of buildings in the District. He has even floated interest in allowing the city to impose a commuter tax.
Gowdy, who said he wants to remain active on D.C. issues as he continues to serve on the full panel in the 113th Congress, agreed that the move was a good idea.
“There was rarely a hearing we had related to the District that Issa did not show up and participate in,” Gowdy said. “He most assuredly is interested and engaged and likes the issues.”