In 1973 the District of Columbia succeeded in getting Congress to break off a large chunk of its authority over local D.C. matters by passing the home rule act. Now, a decade later, the city is still trying to chip away at what it sees as a continuing federal stumbling block to local autonomy.
While Washington's fondest hopes for self-government and full representation in Congress appear a long way off, the city is likely to make some modest gains during the next two years in getting the federal government another step away from its local affairs, according to key members of Congress.
Statehood legislation will be sent to the Hill sometime soon, but nearly everyone concerned agrees it has virtually no chance of passage in this Congress. D.C. Del. Walter Fauntroy has said the City Council should take the next two years to rethink the proposed state constitution, thought by many too liberal or too experimental to be approved, so that it can be brought to a vote in the next Congress, which begins in 1985.
In the meantime, Mayor Marion Barry and Fauntroy, the District's lone representative in Congress, have set congressional agendas for the year that would shave off more autonomy for the city. The top three priorities for them are streamlining congressional approval of D.C. laws, creating a formula to determine the annual federal payment to Washington, and reducing congressional review of the city budget.
The District will try also to get Congress to give local officials more control over the local court system this year, but will resist Northern Virginia's efforts to have Lorton prison moved to a site in the city. Washington officials have a good chance of getting ownership of RFK Stadium, but they will fight federal attempts to transfer more of the costs of St. Elizabeths mental hospital to the city.
Current law requires newly passed local legislation to survive a Congressional review period of 30 legislative days before taking effect, a process that has led to delays of as long as six months. Fauntroy has proposed legislation to make D.C. laws effective when they are sent to Congress and to make it more difficult for Congress to disapprove them.
Congress is not likely to go that far all at once, however, and other compromises are being discussed. These include a proposal by Rep. Stewart McKinney (R-Conn.), ranking minority member of the House District Committee, to have an initial determination made on whether there is a "federal interest" in the bill and if so to give Congress 30 calendar days for review. Other ideas involve taking certain kinds of time-sensitive legislation out of the review process.
Congress has overturned two D.C. laws since passage of the home rule act, but generally stays away these days from the petty local issues that used to get the attention of Congress.
"When I first came here, they were arguing about things like kite-flying on the Mall," said McKinney. Now the focus is high finance, such as the city's budget and the federal government's contribution to it.
The amount the federal government contributes to Washington annually in lieu of taxes on federally owned property is known as the federal payment, and its size is determined by Congress each year. The payment makes up nearly a fifth of the city's budget, but local officials do not know until the last minute in its budgeting process exactly how large the federal payment is likely to be.
The city and Congress have been trying to end that uncertainty by developing a formula or a multi-year approach to the payment.
"That issue has been around since 1790," one Senate committee staff aide said. Members of the House and Senate District committees support the idea of a formula in principle but want a specific formula from the city, the aide said.
One idea has been to start with a base year and raise the amount by a government index, such as the consumer price index. Another possibility would be simply to establish set amounts for five or 10 years without tying them to indicators.
Pauline Schneider, head of the D.C. Office of Intergovernmental Relations, said the formula payment would be one of three or four items the city will send to Congress soon in its legislative request, but that a specific formula will not be outlined in the request.
The House District Committee is close to a compromise plan, however, according to an aide, and Fauntroy predicts that this and the legislative streamlining can pass in this Congress.
Less likely to succeed this year is an effort to increase city budget autonomy. Washington's budget now must pass the City Council and be approved by the mayor, the president and Congress. The budget, due to be submitted to the Hill by April 15 this year, goes through congressional appropriations committees, and in the past Congress has used its budget review power to force the city to do certain things, typically to increase spending on police and fire protection.
"That police and fire protection will come up again this year. It comes up every year," said Rep. Stanford Parris (R-Va.), who has clashed with the city several times over police and fire issues. "The debate gets more vitriolic each time."
The city wants to prevent Congress from doing a line-by-line review of its budget, but members and congressional aides say any major change in this process is unlikely during this Congress.
Washington's court system is a unique blend of local and federal authority. U.S. attorneys prosecute most local cases, and the president appoints local judges. While the city would like to have all prosecutorial functions and appointments of judges transferred to the city, Fauntroy said it may try to get just pieces of this transfer this year. This could include transfer to the city of the probation and parole system, authority over landlord-tenant court and small claims court and prosecution of certain crimes such as drug abuse.
Parris, meanwhile, has been pushing for the city to remove Lorton from Northern Virginia. "It's outmoded, a hell-hole. And security is terrible," Parris said. The federal government should turn over surplus property so the District can build a new jail, and he will try to prevent any monies being authorized for major renovations at the current facility, he said. The city wants to keep Lorton where it is.
On the other hand, the transfer to the city of RFK Stadium, currently owned by the federal government, has the support of key members in both congressional committees. The only impediment, they say, is that the city and the Interior Department have to resolve relatively minor differences over the transfer.
St. Elizabeths is a stickier issue, with the federal government wanting to transfer authority--and cost--to D.C. over the next few years.
"That's one of the slippery rocks beneath the grass," said McKinney. "I object to putting it on the District without the money for it," he said, but added he would support a "more evolutionary change." This might include starting a trust fund for the running of the hospital, using the proceeds from the sale of some of the land surrounding it.