With members of Congress back home or traveling overseas during the congressional recess, District of Columbia activists headed to Capitol Hill to encourage staffers to respect District autonomy. What happened? The answer ranges from what one person described as a "deposition" to what another said was a "productive dialogue."
On April 2, D.C. activists met with House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz's staff to discuss congressional oversight over D.C. The meeting came two weeks after the activists dressed up in colonial clothing and presented a "peace pipe" to Chaffetz's staff, following a confrontation between the Utah Republican and the D.C. government over the District's marijuana policy . “This meeting is about establishing a new repertoire between the city’s residents and Congress,” Adam Eidinger said in a phone interview on April 1. Eidinger is the chairman of the D.C. Cannabis Campaign, which worked to pass Initiative 71, legalizing possession and cultivation of small amounts of marijuana in D.C.
According to a draft agenda for the meeting that Eidinger sent to Chaffetz's legislative director per the director's request, they planned to discuss the contradiction between federalism and interfering in local D.C. affairs, when Congress should conduct oversight over the District, and a timeline for working to remove appropriations riders targeting D.C. (a common congressional tactic for targeting D.C. social policies).
But the meeting did not go as the activists planned.
Eidinger described the meeting, which he said lasted 45 minutes and included representatives from Not Your District PAC, Stand Up for Democracy in D.C., and the D.C. Voting Rights Project, as a one-way discussion.
"Every time we had a question their answer was, 'We can’t really answer that,'” Eidinger said in a Wednesday phone interview. "The staff was very serious. ... It was like being in a deposition."
“The main point was that we feel D.C. has been terribly disrespected,” Eidinger said he told the staff, pointing to the recent standoff with Congress over the District's marijuana policy and congressional intervention in other D.C. affairs. Eidinger was frustrated by the meeting, saying he hoped the Utah Republican's staff would say Chaffetz supported D.C. voting rights.
Though Eidinger was frustrated, an Oversight and Government Reform spokesperson said the meeting was "a productive dialogue," and they would continue to hear his concerns.
"Our staff regularly meets with outside groups and was happy to accommodate a meeting with Mr. Eidinger," Melissa Subbotin said Wednesday. “We don’t come down on the same side of all issues as Mr. Eidinger and that’s clearly a source of frustration for him. Despite that fact, we remain open to future discussions about his concerns as they pertain to the committee’s jurisdiction.”
Chaffetz's staff did request the activists submit a serious of legislative requests in writing to present to the congressman. The activists sent a series of eight requests Wednesday, ranging from supporting voting rights legislation to altering House websites to allow citizens with a D.C. zip code to email members of Congress (the activists said a number of members only accept emails from their local constituents, hindering the ability of D.C. residents to contact members of Congress).
But the agreement to send a list of legislative priorities did not quell the activists' disappointment and frustration following the meeting. Rather, Eidinger said, it spurred a call to action.
In an email to D.C. Cannabis Campaign supporters Tuesday, campaign leaders wrote, "But after our meeting last week with Representative Jason Chaffetz’s staff, where we offered him a chance to reset relations with DC residents, we came away thinking Congressional leaders are not going to lift a finger for us! We have no choice but to escalate protests NOW to ruin their fake 'freedom' brand and see them exposed for what they are: Oppressors."
The campaign is calling for volunteers to join in a 5-day "DC Democracy Vigil" from April 15 to April 20 "to shame our oppressors." The location will be kept a secret until April 15.
Eidinger and his fellow activists were not the only ones on meeting with Hill staffers during recess. Five members of DCVote, a group advocating for District legislative and budget autonomy, made the rounds around four Republican offices on April 1, voicing their opposition to recent measures targeting D.C. laws.
"It was an opportunity for them to express intention of their bills and us to respond in opposition, of course, to the bills and really give the perspective of law abiding, tax-paying D.C. residents and citizens,” DC Vote Executive Director Kimberly Perry said.
They visited the offices of GOP Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and James Lankford, R-Okla., who introduced two resolutions of disapproval attempting to strike down the Reproductive Health Nondiscrimination Act and the Human Rights Amendment Act. The activists also stopped by the offices of Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, who recently introduced a bill attempting to loosen D.C. gun laws.
Perry said they had a "peaceful discussion" with Hill staffers, who were receptive to their concerns.
"Our request is for these members to withdraw their bills and so we just need to make sure that the folks who met with us were clear about our request,” Perry said. "And they each agreed to take that back to their boss."
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