DC delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton believes the time has come for the District to make major changes toward independence.
“We have a new Obama here,” she tells Washingtonian. “I’m energized, and the President has a lot to do with that.”
Even without Obama’s support, this week four senators introduced a bill to grant the District full statehood. Norton matched them in the House. Though chances of statehood are slim to none, the legislation adds to momentum toward increased independence for DC that’s becoming far greater than it has been in decades.
Every year Holmes introduces legislation to give the District control of its budget, funded by local taxpayers; every year it fails to pass. This week she introduced it once again.
“This time,” says the veteran congresswoman, “it has the best chances of passing.”
Norton believes a host of legislation freeing DC from congressional control might be headed for passage, including laws that will:
- Allow the District government to keep operating if the federal government shuts down.
- Permit changes to the height of DC buildings.
- Give the District budget autonomy.
- Change the DC charter to further free the District laws from congressional review.
District officials celebrated when Barack Obama agreed last week to equip his limousine with DC license plates bearing the line “Taxation Without Representation,” a politically charged phrase that protests the District’s brand of limited independence. As a federal district, its representative has no vote on the House floor, and its laws and budgets must be approved by Congress. But its residents pay federal taxes.
“This was more than a ceremonial gesture,” she says. “It came with a very forceful statement.”
When press secretary Jay Carney was asked why the President had decided to use the plates, he said:
“President Obama now has lived in the District for four years and has seen firsthand how patently unfair it is for working families in DC to work hard, raise children, and pay taxes without having a vote in Congress.
“Attaching these plates to the presidential vehicles demonstrates the President’s commitment to the principle of full representation for the people of the District of Columbia and his willingness to fight for voting rights, home rule, and budget autonomy for the district.”
Norton says she saw Obama’s renewed interest in DC matters last year when the President inserted language into his budget that would allow the District to keep functioning if the federal government is forced to shut down. Current law treats DC as if it were a government agency, and its funds would dry up.
“The President identified with us,” Norton says. “I’m certainly taking that as a signal we should go for it.”
When she goes to the House, Norton confronts a conservative Republican base that has had a tendency to insert language into laws that she believes infringe on Home Rule. One would have prevented women in the District from ability to have abortions; others would overrule the District’s gun control laws. She’s been able to fend off most of these efforts in the Senate.
Norton says the District has an ally in congressman Darryl Issa, a California Republican who chairs the committee that oversees District affairs. Issa supported DC budget autonomy last congressional session.
But the biggest change, in Norton’s mind, could come from Obama. No President since LBJ has had a passion for DC’s self-rule that translated into ground-breaking legislation. Granted, Richard Nixon signed the Home Rule Act in 1974, which granted DC its current brand of self-government, but President Johnson set the drive for independence in motion and made DC part of his crusade for civil rights.