Liberated Agenda Pushed In D.C.
Council Feels Less Constrained By Congress

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 13, 2009

With a friend in the White House and Democratic majorities in Congress, several D.C. Council members say they are emboldened to push a progressive agenda that will put the city at the center of the national debate over the environment, same-sex marriage and gun control in the coming year.

In the aftermath of President Obama's inauguration, the council has begun a debate on taxing disposable shopping bags, continued the battle over gun control and expedited plans to try to authorize same-sex marriage.

By wading into such issues, the council raises a question about how far it will go in testing Congress's views on social policy in the nation's capital. Social and economic liberalism have deep roots in the District government, but some observers say the dynamics on the council this year set the stage for more activism.

Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) said he thinks that the District government feels like it's "coming out of a long tunnel" after eight years of a Republican administration and is ready to make a few waves.

"We have to be amongst the most progressive political jurisdictions in the United States, and if you look at our council, our right wing is the left wing anywhere else in the country," Graham said.

Two-thirds of the 13-member council has been elected in the past five years, and many of the newcomers are trying to make names for themselves. Memories of the city's federally appointed financial control board are fading. And the council is starting to feel more secure about picking battles with Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), making it harder for the administration to dissuade council members from taking up controversial issues.

Perhaps most importantly, council members said, the relatively progressive views being espoused on Capitol Hill and in the White House are easing the fear of federal intervention.

"You've got a restless, young council . . . and having President Obama there gives us more confidence," said D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), commenting on last week's unanimous vote to recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere in the nation. "It's time for the council to express where we stand on issues."

Before the end of the year, council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) is expected to introduce a bill to allow same-sex marriage in the District.

Under the District's Home Rule, any bill approved by the council and mayor must survive a 30-day congressional review. Although it's rare for Congress to directly block District legislation, Capitol Hill lawmakers have found ways to stymie city policies.

In 1992, the District became one of the first U.S. cities to authorize needle-exchange programs for drug addicts. In 1998, Congress barred the city from spending money on the program, which was designed to combat the AIDS epidemic. The ban was lifted last year.

Also in 1992, the District created a domestic partner registry for same-sex couples, but Congress blocked funding for it until 2002.

Former council member Kathy Patterson (Ward 3) said it is harder than it used to be for Congress to threaten the city's finances. In 2005, Congress abolished a House subcommittee on D.C. appropriations.

"You don't have people in charge of looking at D.C.'s budget anymore," she said.

But District officials are still getting into fights with Capitol Hill, the latest being over gun control. Last year, the Supreme Court overturned the city's long-standing ban on handguns. Now, Congress has attached to a D.C. voting rights bill an amendment that would prevent the council from setting the city's gun laws.

Irrespective of what Congress does, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) said recently, city leaders "should act like the council of every other state and every other city and do what it feels is best for its residents."

That is exactly what many council members said they intend to do.

Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) said she is planning an ambitious environmental agenda. Cheh and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) are the sponsors of a bill to put a 5 cent tax on disposable paper and plastic bags from grocery stores and other retail outlets. Cheh said she will roll out other pieces of her agenda in the coming months.

"I think what you have is a fairly progressive, activist council anyway, but now we do so with a greater confidence and hope we are not going to be forestalled by Congress," Cheh said.

Even on the voting rights and gun control issue, the council is adopting a combative tone.

Fenty has suggested that the District should continue to press for the voting rights bill -- which would give the city a vote in the U.S. House -- even if Congress insists on keeping the gun amendment. But Gray and several other council members are stepping up their opposition to the gun amendment, even if it threatens the voting rights bill.

"It's almost like we're being asked in order to gain democracy, we have to lose democracy," Gray said.

Some activists worry that city lawmakers will move too far to the left. Paul D. Craney, executive director of the D.C. Republican Committee, said the committee is generally supportive of the same-sex marriage effort. But Craney said D.C. Republicans fear that the council, trying to be innovative, will push higher taxes and policies that endanger the voting rights drive.

"I think the council is pulling in different directions, and there seems to be no consensus leader," Craney said. "We just never know what new tax or gimmick is going to happen. What is their overall plan?"

Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), the longest-serving council member, said he expects lots of controversial policy debates in the coming years. But noting that the city has been at the forefront of progressive issues for generations, he said it won't have anything to do with Obama's election.

"I don't know if we need to be emboldened," Evans said.

Staff writer Nikita Stewart contributed to this report.

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