Rep. Newton I. Steers set the tone for a historic hearing held yesterday in the Longworth House Office Building when the Maryland Republican said that, as a proponent of home rule for the District of Columbia, "I do not regard this legislation as the proper business of Congress."
Steers' comments and members of the House District Committee and members of the D.C. City Council - who had never before participated in a joint legislative hearing - met to consider a proposed revision of the city's criminal code.
Rep. Romano L. Mazzoli (D-Ky), chairman of the District Committee's judiciary subcommittee, joined Steers and Council member David A. Clarke (D-ward one) in criticizing the fact that the final decision about what local laws will remain, be changed, added or deleted will be determined by Congress - without the consent of city officials.
Clarke said that while he was "excited at the prospect that our city may soon have a new criminal code," he said he was also frustrated by "the continued incapability of the citizens of the city to have any direct part in (the new legal code's) adoption through their elected officials."
Because of the city's present, limited home rule status, the congressmen listened for three house to such mundane concerns as whether it should be against the law in the District of Columbia for a contractor to burn down the remains of a building he is razing.
There are more fundamental problems to be discussed in future hearings, but yesterday's first session focused on several issues that the congressmen said were relatively unimportant.
After the hearing, Mazzoli said he agreed that Clarke "should be hesistant" to sit down with federal officials to discuss what is purely a local matter.
"It should be their (District officials) cup of tea, and we are the interlopers," said Mazzoli, who supports full home rule and voting representation in Congress for the city. But city officials are "better off trying to control us than to stand back and criticize.
"The reality is that since there is no sovereignty," a specialty created code revision commission should work toward a goal of making the District of Columbia's criminal code "a model for the nation," Mazzoli said.
Mazzoli praised members of "this jerry-built" District of Columbia Law Review Commission for displaying a "genuine spirit of cooperation." Its 17 members were appointed by the President, Congress, the mayor, the City Council, local judges and the public defender's office.
At the end of yesterday's hearing, the Rev. David H. Eaton, a member of the law review commission, buttonholed Steers and thanked him "for your statement on the improperty" of the hearing.
Steers, a freshman House member, said that while there may be "a need for some exception (to the complete removal of congressional control) because of the federal presence in the city . . . this is a good example of what we should abdicate . . .Our intrusion on their (the city's) police department is ridiculous. Many of us don't even live in the District of Columbia.
Of the three congressman attending yesterday's hearing, Mazzoli and Rep. E. Thomas Coleman, (R-Mo.) live in Northern Virginia, and Steers, of course, lives in Montgomery County. Coleman, Steers a GOP freshman, said "frankly it's not one of the choice committees," but he accepted it "because I got the key assignment I wanted" on the House agriculture Committee.
Mazzoli admits that he was "shanghaied" by then House Speaker Carl Albert and Ways and Means Chairman Wilbur MIlls into joining the District Committee in 1973, but said he has found that "in a serendipitous way, it's a rewarding and fulfilling" assignment, and "as long as I'm not neglecting Kentucky buniness," he gets little flak about it from his consitutents.
He said, however, that, he resented "the lack of prepardness" exhibited by some of yesterday's witnesses. "I'm very disturbed," he said, saying that while the congressmen and commission members had "done our homework," they were faced with witnesses who "wasted our time" because of their lack of preparedness.
The House subcommittee and members of the City Council have scheduled additional hearings for today and Nov. 29 to consider more substantive proposed changes in the D.C. code. Among other revisions, the commission has recommended a series of changes that cover the broad areas of homicide, robbery, theft, burglary, assault, sex offenses, arson and forgery.