The District is losing friends on Capitol Hill

December 5, 2012

Emerson took a hands-off approach to D.C. spending bills. (U.S. Congress)

It stands to figure that the new Congress, with nine more Democratic House members and two more Democratic senators, would be friendlier to the overwhelmingly Democratic District of Columbia.

That may not be so, given that several District-friendly members will no longer be in key posts for the 113th Congress.

That includes the chairman and ranking member of the Senate committee handling District affairs: Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) is retiring, and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) is term-limited by Republican Party rules. Lieberman has been reliable supporter of District priorities, including the quest for a vote in the House of Representatives, and the moderate Collins has rarely impinged on D.C. issues — joining Lieberman, for instance, on the voting-rights bill.

Even more worrisome: On the House side, Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.) is giving up her seat in February to take a job heading an electrical industry association. As chairwoman of the House appropriations subcommittee handling the District budget, Emerson did more than she probably had to to fend off spending riders favored by more conservative members of her panel.

Emerson’s departure was marked today by well-wishing statements from Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton and Mayor Vincent C. Gray. Norton said Emerson treated the city “with dignity and respect” and “stuck solidly to her mission and never sought to impose her views … undemocratically,” while Gray called her “consistently fair in her treatment of the District of Columbia.”

Whoever takes charge of the panel — a decision not likely to be resolved for weeks — he or she will almost certainly be more conservative than Emerson, one of the most moderate members of the GOP caucus and a native of suburban Maryland. 

In better news for city leaders, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) is expected to remain as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Affairs committee, which handles non-spending matters concerning the District. That promises to maintain momentum on budget autonomy and building-height restrictions, issues where Issa has indicated an interest in helping city leaders out. It’s unclear whether Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), who has also established a cordial working relationship with city leaders, will remain as chair of the oversight subcommittee handling District-specific issues.

On the Senate side, Lieberman is expected to hand his Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs gavel to Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who has previously served on the committee and voted in favor of the voting-rights bill. Expected to join him as ranking member, however, is Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), one of the Senate’s most conservative members and one whose views on gun control, gay marriage and abortion are at odds with the D.C. orthodoxy.

Gray, in an interview Tuesday, summarized the city’s position: “You gotta make new friends.”

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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Mike DeBonis · December 5, 2012