The venerable House District of Columbia Committee, for years a symbol of congressional dominance of the affairs of the city, seems to be going the way of the Edsel.
Rep. Stewart McKinney (R-Conn.), the committee's ranking minority member, last week dusted off an old idea to downgrade the committee's responsibilities for overseeing the District's legislative and administrative actions and transfer them to a subcommittee.
McKinney rankled Rep. Ron Dellums (D-Calif.), the committee chairman, by the manner in which he unveiled his proposal and because he neglected to confer with Dellums and other committee members in advance. But Dellums agrees in principle with McKinney and most top District officials that the time is fast approaching to phase out the District committee.
"I believe that the extent to which the District of Columbia committee is in business is the extent to which we in some respect can be considered benevolent dictators," Dellums said. "And I think we should not be involved in that."
Before the coming of home rule a decade ago, the House District Committee ruled the city virtually with an iron hand. Under the leadership of the late congressman John McMillan (D-S.C.) and a handful of other southern Democrats and conservative Republicans, the committee meddled in every aspect of city government from patronage to potholes to whether to allow kite flying.
Even as Congress was moving in 1973 toward granting District residents the right to elect their mayor and City Council members, the House District Committee was enlarging its staff and talking about expanding the committee's authority.
Former representative Charles Diggs (D-Mich.), chairman of the commmittee at that time, came up with the bright idea of extending the panel's oversight jurisdiction to include Guam, American Samoa and other U.S. territories.
"Since D.C. is not a state, it is a territory, so we might as well have all the territories under one committee," Diggs explained at the time.
Some of Diggs' detractors grumbled that the congressman was probably more interested in traveling to those areas than studying them.
Senate leaders saw the handwriting on the wall and in 1976 moved swiftly to covert the old Senate District Committee to a subcommittee of the Governmental Affairs Committee. But the House District Committee until now has guarded its flanks and continued to grow in staff size and operating budget.
In proposing a phaseout by the end of 1987, McKinney argued that much of the committee's most important work, in overseeing the emergence of a full-fleged city government, has been completed.
"Continuing a standing committee 10 years after the first election of local government officials is an exercise in self-flagellation for this body," McKinney said last week. "But it is also a failure to recognize and acknowledge the progress made by the officials and citizens of the District of Columbia."
Mayor Marion Barry, who is anxious for the city to assume greater independence in budgetary matters and in running its criminal justice system, has applauded McKinney's proposal.
However, D.C. Del. Walter E. Fauntroy, the city's elected representative to the House and a member of the committee, contends that the committee should be retained until the District achieves statehood and resolves other thorny self-government issues.
"I don't think that a subcommittee of an existing committee of Congress will give as careful attention and as much clout to the legitimate concerns of a number of members of this House" regarding the District, Fauntroy said.
For years, Fauntroy has helped to wage the uphill struggle on Capitol Hill for full voting rights and autonomy for District residents. His concerns about doing away with the District Committee carry some weight. However, Fauntroy may also be concerned about losing an important perch for putting across his views.
As for Dellums, he said he is not bothered by McKinney's proposal, which could cost him a committee chairmanship.
"I'm not concerned about power," Dellums said. "What kind of power does the chairman of the D.C. committee have? It's ludicrous."