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With Kwame Brown On the Way Out, Will Congress Take Over?

Charges brought against the DC Council chairman today have people wondering if another financial control board is in the District’s future.

Mobbed by the press as he left City Hall Wednesday afternoon, DC Council Chairman Kwame Brown said, “I’ll have a comment tomorrow.”

Tomorrow might be too late to answer a question on the minds of many in City Hall: Is Congress itching to take over the District?

“That rumor cannot be true,” says DC delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton.

Brown is expected to resign as chairman tomorrow, after federal prosecutors earlier Wednesday charged the popular DC politician with bank fraud, in connection with a home equity loan. The charges were filed in a “criminal information,” which means Brown most likely has accepted the charges and his fate. The council is in the process of replacing him.

Among the rumors and questions running through DC political circles and the John Wilson Building the past few weeks is that Congress was looking askance at the city’s looming scandals. If the chairman goes down and investigations into Mayor Vincent Gray’s 2010 campaign lop off his head, would Congress attempt to take over? Are we headed for another financial control board?

“I think a federal control board is probably our best option right now,” police union chair Kristopher Baumann says. “People look back on the control board days with fond memories. Even Marion Barry said the board did a good job.”

True, but neither he nor any elected officials would welcome another intrusion into local control.

Congress passed a law in 1995 to establish the “District of Columbia Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority,” long for the federal control board. Two things prompted Congress to act: The District was facing a $722 million budget deficit, and Marion Barry had just been elected to a fourth mayoral term.

The control board helped run the city until 2001, when it essentially went out of business. The District has passed 17 balanced budgets since the control board took over, and it has a rainy-day fund of more than $1 billion. Fiscally, it’s the envy of most city, county, and state governments.

Which is a major reason Congress is unlikely to consider a takeover.

“There are specific factors that could bring back some kind of federal control,” Delegate Norton says. “Corruption isn’t one of them. They all have to do with finance and money.”

Norton says she’s been in “constant contact” with Representative Darryl Issa, the California Republican who chairs the House committee that oversees the District. They have been working out details of legislation that would give the District budget autonomy. Under current law Congress must review and pass DC’s budget. Issa wants to unleash the District.

“Congressman Issa was asked if the issues in the District concerned him,” Norton said. “He said the investigations had been going on for a long time, and they had no effect.”

I put the question to Issa and am waiting for a response.

In Norton’s view, Congress has “grown up” and no longer wants to meddle with governing the District, though some socially conservative representatives still want to legislate on matters of abortion.

“The good news is that the District budget looks very good compared to anywhere in the United States,” she says. “Congressman Issa was very impressed when he held hearings on the budget.”

Among those who testified was Chairman Kwame Brown, who assured Issa the District’s fiscal house was sound. Apparently, his personal house was not so sound.

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