For the first time in more than 40 years, suburban Maryland and Virginia are represented on the House Appropriations subcommittee that must approve the District's budget, giving them more leverage in regional disputes with the city such as whether to raise the legal drinking age.
Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), the latest additions to the panel that begins work today on the District's fiscal 1986 budget, insist they won't use their positions to meddle in city affairs.
Yet at a recent hearings with Mayor Marion Barry and other D.C. officials, Wolf made a strong pitch for raising the drinking age for beer and wine in the District to 21, as Maryland and Virginia did this year. He warned that a "blood border" could develop around the city if 18- to 20-year-olds flock to the District to drink and then drive home on suburban highways.
"I don't regard that as involving myself in District of Columbia affairs," Wolf said afterwards. "Young people are out there driving. It's not involving ourselves, it's protecting ourselves."
Hoyer, noting the somewhat parochial tone of the proceedings, jokingly remarked that: "The mayor is going to go back and say, 'It was tough dealing with 13 city councilmen. Now we have Councilman Wolf and Councilman Hoyer.' "
One city official said having the local congressmen on the panel would be "both good and bad." Where the city and suburbs are working together on regional issues, such as cleaning up the Potomac, the congressmen might use the subcommittee to get federal funding for the efforts. However, where the District and surrounding jurisdictions are at odds, the same authority would work against the city, the official said.
A significant change also has occurred this year on the Senate side, with the D.C. Appropriations subcommittee getting a new, and far more involved, ranking minority member, Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.).
Lautenberg has actively participated in the subcommittee hearings this year, changing the dynamic of a subcommittee that for the last two years has been run single-handedly by its chairman, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.).
"I will be active," Lautenberg said in a recent interview. "I would like to get into the budget but also the structure of the community, as well."
A former New Jersey businessman who started his own data-processing company, Lautenberg said he shares Specter's view that the District can be used as a testing ground for ideas for dealing with national urban problems, such as crime and drugs and homelessness.
"The District represents the full range of interests that I have as a representative of New Jersey," a mainly urban state, he said.
The District so far has resisted pressure from officials of surrounding areas to raise the legal drinking age for beer and wine from 18 to 21 years of age. Hoyer and Wolf have raised a number of other regional issues at the subcommittee including problems at the city's Lorton Reformatory in Fairfax County, traffic snarls caused by bridge repairs and the disposition of the land and buildings at the city's closed Glenn Dale Hospital in Prince George's County.
Hoyer and Wolf both say they support the home rule concept for the District and will maintain the House panel's recent tradition of keeping hands off purely local issues that involve no federal interest.
The subcommittee is scheduled to begin work today on the District's budget for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. Congress can amend the city's budget and can add money or legal requirements to it, though in recent years it has steered away from making many changes in what the District government has approved.
Wolf said he has no plan to try to add language to the city's budget on the drinking age issue. "I'm going to operate on the premise that I think they are going to raise it the drinking age ."
Wolf, who was urged by the Republican leadership to take the assignment and has attended most of the subcommittee hearings this year, said he opposes statehood for the District or providing it with two U.S. senators, as provided for in the D.C. Voting Rights Amendment. The amendment will die in August because its supporters have been unable to obtain the ratification of the necessary 38 states.
Hoyer said he expects to use his subcommittee assignment to help with cooperative efforts between Prince George's County and the District, and that he thinks the city should view both him and Wolf as assets on the panel.
"But it has the possibility of having leverage," Hoyer acknowledged. "We'd all be kidding one another if I didn't say the fact that I'm on the District Committee will make some difference, but I think it will be a marginal difference."
Hoyer pointed out that a number of D.C. firefighters are his constituents, and said he could see adding federal funds to the budget to get better firefighting equipment for the city. In the past, police and fire unions have gone to suburban congressmen for help in getting what they want from the city.
Hoyer also said he wants to talk with the mayor about ways to prevent individuals from evading payng Maryland cigarette and liquor taxes by purchasing those products in the District. But he said generally Congress should take a "passive stance" and not impose judgments on strictly local issues.
Hoyer said he is a strong supporter of the D.C. Voting Rights Amendment but on the issue of statehood he said, "I haven't really gotten into that and don't intend to get into it."
Rep. Julian Dixon (D-Calif.), chairman of the subcommittee, said during the panel's first meeting this year that, even with the addition of the two new members, "I think philosophically the committee is intact and very supportive of the District of Columbia."
Dixon said it was "healthy" to have the local congressmen on the panel and that it would give them a better opportunity to understand District affairs and have access to agency heads.
Under Dixon, the subcommittee has taken a largely "hands-off" approach to city affairs, although it occasionally has added requirements or funding to items such as St. Elizabeths mental hospital, the District's accumulated long-term deficit and police and fire equipment.
Wolf described his new assignment as "sort of like serving on a city council."
"Nowhere else up here do you get to deal with the police department and baseball," he said.