Norton: a Player Outside the District

Subcommittee Has a Broad Portfolio

Posted February 27, 2009 at 1:50pm

Scattered across the walls of Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton’s (D-D.C.) Rayburn office are a dozen or so black and white photos depicting the nation’s capital of days long past. Streetcars glide through the pre-Metro downtown in one shot, while President Teddy Roosevelt’s pet bison graze peacefully on the White House lawn in another Norton favorite.

But one aged image, of New Deal workers encamped on the National Mall near the National Archives, stands out as a timely link to the present. In an interview last month, Norton said President Franklin Roosevelt’s bold plan to end the Great Depression through massive construction projects offers a poignant lesson for the current economy.

“The classic public work is building something,” she said, noting the federal buildings that line Constitution Avenue, many of which were built by FDR’s Works Progress Administration during the 1930s.

It’s a paradigm that Democrats and President Barack Obama have taken to heart. Barely six weeks into the 111th Congress, Congress delivered to Obama a $787 billion economic stimulus package with hundreds of billions of dollars for road construction and other infrastructure spending as its centerpiece.

By all accounts, the economy will continue to dominate the agenda for the foreseeable future, and as chairwoman of a House subcommittee overseeing federal buildings and economic development, Norton will play a key role in shaping the recovery efforts.

Now in her 10th term, the former law professor and longtime civil rights advocate is perhaps best known for her fight to earn voting rights for the District of Columbia, a crusade that has earned her some notoriety through her ongoing “feud” with comedian Stephen Colbert. The host of Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report” has argued that the District is not actually part of the United States and that Norton is therefore a “fake Congresswoman.” She in turn has taken Colbert to task on his civics knowledge.

But less known is the unique policy niche Norton has carved for herself as a senior member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, where she chairs the Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management.

Norton sought a seat on the subcommittee — which oversees federal buildings and the Economic Development Administration, an arm of the Commerce Department — shortly after winning her seat in 1990. “I found what, let’s face it, is one of the most obscure subcommittees in the Congress, and I stayed on it,” she said.

That perseverance landed her in the chairwoman’s seat in 2007. It’s a role that dovetails nicely with the needs of a district with a heavy federal presence that also gives her a say in setting national policy. “This is both a hometown and a federal city and there is absolute symmetry between what the hometown needs and what the federal government does,” Norton said.

For instance, she has brokered deals easing private development of federal property in the District, paving the way for the revitalization of the Southeast waterfront where the Washington Nationals ultimately built their stadium. Norton has also successfully pushed for new federal buildings to be built outside of the downtown area, and she led the charge for siting the Department of Homeland Security’s new headquarters on the grounds of St. Elizabeths Hospital across the Anacostia River.

Janene Jackson, the senior vice president for government affairs and public policy for the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, says this type of development is a boon for local neighborhoods and businesses.

“She’s rather impressive in getting significant portions of federal land returned to District control,” Jackson said. “For us, we’re hoping that our member businesses will be able to move into those neighborhoods and provide services.”

Norton hopes to implement similar management reforms nationally through reauthorization of the General Services Administration, which manages most federal buildings and is among the nation’s biggest landlords. A top priority for her is overhauling the agency’s leasing and procurement policies with an eye toward saving taxpayer money and promoting economic growth. “It can save money at a time when the federal government needs desperately to save money,” she said.

Norton is also a firm believer in a federal program intended to “green the government,” by retrofitting GSA properties for improved energy efficiency. The stimulus package contains $4.5 billion for the program, which Norton said will go a long way toward saving taxpayer funds while boosting jobs nationwide.

“If you were to pick any part of this bill where you were sure of the return, it would be this part,” she said.

She also has a message for the federal agencies under her purview who will receive billions of dollars in redevelopment funds from the stimulus: “Norton is watching you.”

In addition to attending to a busy economic agenda, Norton may also soon see her hard-fought quest for House voting rights bear fruit. The Senate passed a D.C. voting rights bill last week, and the House will address a companion bill this week. Obama is expected to sign the measure.

Should that occur, Norton has promised an olive branch — in the form of a key to the city — to Colbert, who referenced the legendary tenacity of his “nemesis” in their latest televised brush last month.

“She is like a fly who keeps buzzing no matter how many times you swat it away,” he said.