Eastern Market Funding Plan Questioned

Fiscal Conservatives Criticize Use of Federal Money for Rebuild

Posted May 23, 2007 at 3:41pm

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) hopes to squeeze some money out of this year’s appropriations to help rebuild Eastern Market, but some Members say her efforts are digging too deep into the federal government’s pockets.

“I don’t think it’s the federal government’s place to solve that,” said Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.). “It’s a local issue and it should be dealt with by the local community. There is no reason why my constituents in the 7th district of Tennessee should be paying to rebuild the market for that community.”

The market is a staple on Capitol Hill — a place where Members of Congress and their staffs go to shop, eat and chat with local residents. When a fire gutted the market’s South Hall on April 30, Norton instantly promised to rally for federal funds and said she was confident that she could get Members’ votes to help fund the rebuilding of the market.

She announced last week where she hopes to slip in that request: in this year’s appropriation and in a grant from the Economic Development Administration, a federal agency that stimulates growth in economically depressed areas.

It’s a plan that worries some fiscal conservatives like Blackburn.

“We have a federal government spending problem, and part of that problem comes from so many people wanting a little bit of money or a lot of money for their special interests,” she said. “What we have to realize is that the taxpayers do not want to be an ATM.”

Norton argues that the market is a federal landmark — built in 1873, back before the District was under home rule, it is the last functioning market of an original seven in the city. Although she was not available for comment this week to discuss the details of her plan, Norton has said in previous interviews that she will look for funds to preserve the design of the building.

“This is an historic property. It was built by the federal government,” Norton said in a recent interview. “I think the federal government has an interest in keeping one of the few standing intact federal markets.”

But some members of the Republican Study Committee see it differently. On his blog, Rep. John Campbell (R-Calif.) compared it to a story written by David Crockett (who served in Congress in the early 1800s): After initially pushing for federal money to help out those who lost their homes in a Georgetown fire, Crockett later realized that taxpayers should not pay for such local tragedies just because they are near the Capitol. Of course, his fellow Congressmen saw it differently.

Similarly, the responsibility to rebuild Eastern Market lies solely with the city, Campbell said in an interview.

“It’s used for private business and it wasn’t burned down as a federal landmark and it’s not operated by or run by or burned down by the federal government,” he said. The problem is that Members are swayed by being so close to the tragedy, he said.

“This is exactly why I voted against the D.C. voting rights bill … Members show more attention here because they know it and understand it,” he said, adding that the District already effectively has 435 votes.

Norton concedes that the city should take up most of the cost — and Mayor Adrian Fenty (D) has promised to finance and complete the market’s reconstruction in two years. But she said in previous interviews that any money she seeks will be properly spent.

“Any money we would ask for would be money of the kind that is already used for such purposes,” she said.

As for the EDA’s role, the agency’s officials are willing to look over any requests for grants from the city and hope to help out, said Kelly O’Brien, the administration’s director of public affairs.

“At this point, we’re reviewing the situation,” she said. “We’re limited in terms of how much money is left and what we can do.”

Norton’s tactic isn’t rare — many Members try to get federal funds for local disasters, said Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar of U.S. politics at the American Enterprise Institute and a Roll Call contributing writer. Norton has an edge, he said, because all her peers have firsthand knowledge of Washington, D.C., but her constituency also has a unique relationship with the federal government.

“So much of the District is filled with federal buildings, and they do not pay property taxes,” he said. “So in return they get some money.”