The new chairman of the House Appropriations Committee is proposing to eliminate the D.C. subcommittee, which for more than three decades of home rule has served as the key panel overseeing the city's finances.
If adopted by the House and Senate, the proposal by Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) could reduce the city's clout and federal funding but result in less interference from Congress and more autonomy for locally elected leaders, analysts and lawmakers said.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton says the loss of the subcommittee would be a boost for Home Rule.
The District does not have a voting representative in the House or Senate. But D.C. subcommittees in each chamber give the city a formal place in the appropriations process, with its own presidential budget allocation, subcommittee chairman and staff.
Word of the potential shake-up spread yesterday as Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) briefed reporters on attempts to spark a resurgence of city activism for voting rights in Congress in the new session. Lieberman challenged President Bush to live up to his second inaugural address's call to spread freedom worldwide by ending the "outrageous hypocrisy" at home that denies the District full voting rights.
"In Washington, D.C., the capital of the world's most powerful country, which in the president's own words delivered in his inaugural address a week ago stands most of all for freedom and democracy . . . you cannot cast a vote. That is wrong," said Lieberman, the Democrats' vice presidential nominee in 2000.
Both Norton and Lieberman noted that more than 1,000 District troops have fought in Iraq and three have died to secure national elections in Iraq on Sunday, while they cannot exercise the same right here. The lawmakers, who reintroduced legislation to expand Congress to include two senators and a House representative for the District, appeared with Emory Kosh, 22, a Norton aide and District veteran of the war in Iraq, and Andy Shallal, 49, an Iraqi-born U.S. citizen who owns two restaurants in the city and who is eligible to vote for Iraq's national legislature but not for a congressional representative.
The lofty calls for greater representation were a marked contrast to gritty negotiations over the congressional reorganization proposal. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) have pressed for consolidating spending power as a new chairman takes over the Appropriations Committee. Proposed changes would reduce the panel's subcommittees from 13 to 10.
Incoming Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) has not signed off on any reorganization plan, and talks are continuing.
Norton greeted the proposed change as a boon. The District subcommittee predates the arrival of home rule in 1971. In recent years, the city has chafed as Congress has tried to undo the city's gun control laws and blocked its efforts to legalize marijuana for medical purposes and to prevent the spread of HIV by distributing free needles to drug addicts.
"The more people who are going through the District's affairs, the less self-government we have," said Norton, an eight-term incumbent who has speaking rights and can vote in committee but not on the floor. "If you have a committee called 'D.C.,' you invite more micromanagement of the District."
Other reviews were mixed. Committee officials noted that the District benefits from special attention from senators and representatives.
"The District has no voting representative. It has the D.C. appropriations subcommittee. Now it's not going to even have that," said one Republican familiar with the proposed changes who spoke on condition of anonymity because of disagreement with GOP leaders. "What limited clout the District has in the budget process, it will lose."
Lobbyists for charities and other groups that receive federal grants through the D.C. budget bill feared losing influence.
Budget restrictions passed each year that prevent the District from spending money to lobby for voting rights, for example, also might be tougher to pry away.
When members of the Congressional Black Caucus met with Bush in the Oval Office on Wednesday, the president brushed off Norton's query about whether he would reconsider his opposition to voting rights for the District. Norton carried with her a recent editorial cartoon depicting Bush looking out with binoculars from a White House tower over the District and the caption, "Scanning the distant horizons looking for people craving democracy."
"I said: 'Mr. President, leaving aside my own bill, three Republicans in the House have filed bills looking for D.C. voting representation," Norton said. "If any one or combination of them reaches you, would you . . . sign them?'
"He smiled and moved on to the next person," she said.