Before any more sleep is lost or tears are shed over Congress' latest "assault" on home rule, let's take a moment for a calm review of the facts.
In approving the D.C. Home Rule Act in 1973, Congress retained the right to a mandatory 30-day review period for all legislation enacted by the D.C. Council. However, recognizing that some urgent circumstances could make such a review period untenable, Congress also provided that "emergency" legislation, on a two-thirds majority vote of the council, could become immediately effective for a period of 90 days only.
Clearly, the intent of Congress was that the emergency procedure should be involved only in genuine emergency cases -- for instance, when there was an imminent threat to health, property or public safety. Just as clearly, in my view, Congress did not intend for the council to use its emergency powers to circumvent congressional review, by renewing emergency legislation time after time ad infinitum.
D.C. Superior Court Judge George Revercomb recently supported that interpretation when he threw out the District's condominium conversion law. Judge Revercomb held that the council had acted improperly in renewing the condo law repeatedly as emergency legislation. The Revercomb decision cast doubt on the validity of the District's "emergency" law on mortgage interest rate ceilings. That, in turn, prompted the Federal National Mortgage Association and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation to suspend business in the District. And that, in turn, set off the recent mortgage crisis.
The D.C. Council has become so fond of circumventing congressional review that it has passed 69 percent of its bills this year as "emergency" legislation. Everyone of those so-called "emergency" laws still on the books could be invalidated if Judge Revercomb's decision is upheld. Legal precedents, as well as the experience of other jurisdictions in exercising "emergency" powers, suggest that Judge Revercomb is on firm legal ground.
I have proposed a Home Rule Act amendment that would improve, not inhibit, the District's ability to cope with true legislative emergencies. Under my proposal, the council could enact emergency bills valid for 180 days, rather than the present 90 days. However, the council could enact such a bill only once; an emergency bill could not be renewed. I would submit that this is not an outrageous restriction, and that any "emergency" that cannot be dealt with by the council in 180 days really isn't much of an emergency at all.
Critics of my proposal contend that we should hold further hearings on the matter, and that to act now would be to act in undue haste. I disagree. The issue is too simple to require months of hearings and investigations, and too urgent to be postponed. We should act now to correct the abuse of the District's emergency legislative powers, before Judge Revercomb's colleagues on the bench feel compelled to act for us.