A GOP-led Congress bodes ill for D.C. autonomy

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, October 23, 2010

On the evening of Nov. 2, winners of the D.C. general election might be tempted to dance the night away. But the victors, especially the next mayor and D.C. Council chairman -- likely to be Vincent Gray and Kwame Brown, respectively -- would do well to pause in their partying to check out television coverage of election returns around the country.

If the polls and pundits are correct, a storm is brewing in America and it's headed this way. And when those hurricane forces hit town, Washington's political landscape will be transformed into a sight unseen since 2006, when Republicans last controlled Congress.

The latest polls show the GOP regaining the House of Representatives and coming within striking distance of capturing the Senate. A shift of the congressional gavel from Democratic to Republican hands warrants the District's full attention. Not that the District can change the outcome. But a transfer of power in Congress, even if it's only in the House, will have a strong bearing on the District's prospects.

At least that has been the city's experience with past GOP-dominated Congresses. When the Republicans ran Capitol Hill in 1995, the District got a financial control board. I hasten to add that we deserved one, too, having run the city into the ground financially.

Unlike congressional Democrats, Republicans tend not to be protective or permissive when it comes to the District, especially on fiscal matters. Their stringency can't be ignored. The city must cope with huge budget deficits in the coming years. How elected leaders address that challenge will determine the nature and degree of intervention the District can expect from Congress.

But make no mistake, if the GOP prevails on Nov. 2, congressional intervention is a given.

That will be the case even if Democrats manage to narrowly retain control of the House and Senate. You don't have to let your imagination run wild to foresee a Congress, bolstered by more Republicans, dooming the chances of the District getting a voting seat in the House.

Gone, too, will be any chance of the city winning full autonomy from Congress over the spending of locally collected dollars.

What's more, a new Congress, under Republican influence, is likely to give the District more of what it doesn't want.

Expect, for example, a renewed effort to weaken D.C. gun laws and restrict the D.C. Council's regulation of firearms. Gun-rights forces tried to do that this year when they attached pro-gun language that ultimately derailed voting rights legislation. The Nov. 2 elections, if all goes as predicted, will only strengthen their hands.

A rightward-leaning Congress might even want to revisit old business such as the riders on appropriation bills prohibiting needle exchange and medical marijuana programs that Democrats wisely eliminated. The city's same-sex-marriage law might not be safe either.

For certain, a less D.C.-friendly Congress will meddle in the city's business. Which is why the District's new leaders, if events take a turn for the worse on election night, will have to give serious thought to congressional relations.

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