Is DC More Independent 40 Years Into Home Rule?

Moves toward autonomy are slow and small.

By: Harry Jaffe

Last week freshman Michigan congressman Kerry Bentivolio, who supported himself as a Santa impersonator before coming to Congress, left coals in the District’s stocking.

Representative Bentivolio let it be known he has drafted legislation to free DC from traffic cameras. His bill would make the District government the only one in the nation barred from using cameras to issue tickets for speeding or running a red light. The congressman, from a district northwest of Detroit, didn’t give much of a reason. He doesn’t have a car in DC. An aide told the Associated Press the bill will “protect the people’s rights, not take them away.”

This might be welcome news to those of us who have received a letter from DMV with a photo of the infraction and a ticket for $100 or more. But DC Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton was none too pleased about Bentivolio’s proposal.

“We will fight each and every congressional attack on our right to self-government,” she responded, “especially against congressional bullies who betray their own well-known views on federal interference on local matters by trying to use the big foot of the federal government against our local government.”

That sounds a bit hyperbolic, but Norton has been battling congressmen who want to impose their will on her hometown almost every one of her 22 years as DC’s non-voting delegate.

On this July Fourth, how independent is the District? Congress passed the Home Rule Act in 1973, providing for an elected mayor and city council. Forty years later, has the District increased its independence?

The short answer is no.

Congress still must approve every law passed by the council and signed by the mayor. Congress has discretion over every tax dollar raised in DC. For the past few years, Norton has introduced legislation to give the District budget autonomy from Congress. She’s gotten close, but a bill has never passed both the House and Senate.

Last April, District residents overwhelmingly supported a referendum to give the local government budget autonomy. Congress yawned.

On the criminal justice side, the top federal prosecutor in town is the US Attorney, a federal official appointed by the president. The District has no elected or appointed prosecutor for major crimes. The city’s appointed attorney general can prosecute only minor misdemeanors.

Fundamentally, the District is still a “federal enclave,” controlled by Congress and the executive branch.

“We still don’t have the autonomy we deserve,” says Kimberly Perry, executive director of DC Vote, the principal advocacy group for local empowerment. “But we’re getting there.”

Very slowly, if you take into account legislation proposed in the past year. Congressmen from districts as far away as Utah have floated proposals to loosen DC’s gun laws, restrict spending on abortion, and use public funds for private school vouchers.

Meddlesome?

Yes, says Perry. “We need to educate congressmen so they refrain from using the District as a laboratory to advance their policies.”

Those policies often involve women’s reproductive rights. In the first six months of the 113th Congress, senators and House members have introduced bills and added riders to legislation that would ban the District from spending local funds on abortions for low-income women after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

That prompted a coalition of reproductive rights groups to join Norton and Mayor Vince Gray on May 28 at a press conference to push for budget autonomy. All justified and well and good, but Congress does not seem to be in the mood to grant the District more independence.

True, Delaware Senator Tom Carper introduced a bill in January to make the District of Columbia the 51st state. At the unveiling of the Frederick Douglass statue in the Capitol Visitor’s Center on June 19, Majority Leader Harry Reid said he would co-sponsor the bill. Carper has said he would hold hearings this fall. But the bill has little chance of passing the Senate and will go nowhere in the House.

US Attorney Ron Machen’s corruption investigation has already taken down two sitting DC council members and nailed a former one for bribery. His ongoing investigation could target more council members and perhaps reach Mayor Gray.

Corruption at the top could bring calls for the federal government to curtail DC’s home rule, rather than increase its independence.

Meanwhile, District politicians are dealing with the traffic cameras, which added $95 million to the coffers in 2012. Mayor Gray has lowered some fines. Council member Vincent Orange sent Congressman Bentivolio a letter explaining that he plans to introduce a bill to place a moratorium on new traffic cameras and mandate warning signs for existing ones.

Bentivolio has yet to introduce his legislation banning the cameras altogether.