Congress should resist any temptation to overturn a law passed by the D.C. City Council unless it is persuaded that the council overstepped its powers, according to Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton (D-Mo.).
Eagleton, chairman of the Senate subcommittee dealing with D.C. legislation, made his comment during a 3 1/2-hour hearing on a resolution sought by the State Department that would veto a council bill restricting the location of foreign embassy offices -- called chanceries -- in the city.
At the end of the hearing, Eagleton said he had not made up his own mind which side was right.
The city's Home Rule Charter gives Congress the unrestricted power to veto any law passed by the City Council within 30 legislative days after it is received on Capitol Hill for review. To do so, both houses must pass identical resolutions of disapproval.
"In my mind," Eagleton said, "it would be wholly inconsistent with . . . the whole premise of home rule for this subcommittee to superimpose its wisdom about whether chanceries should be built in particular neighborhoods of the District," Eagleton declared.
But, Eagleton said, his congressional panel does have an interest in finding out "whether the elaborate process created by the Home Rule Act to balance federal and local interests worked in accordance with the law, and whether the council exceeded its authority . . . "
Yesterday's hearing is the first of two scheduled on Capitol Hill. A House District subcommittee has scheduled a session for Wednesday.
The City Council passed the disputed measure Oct. 9 by unanimous vote. It would outlaw all new or expanded chanceries in residential areas zoned for low and moderate densities -- notably the Embassy Row area near Dupont Circle.
Witnesses yesterday took three basic positions:
U.S. Ambasador W. Beverly Carter contended that the council infringed upon the powers of the federal government's National Capital Planning Commission and the city's own Zoning Commission. Those commissions last year created a special new diplomatic zone that permitted more chanceries in the Embassy Row area.
City Council Chairman Arrington Dixon, council member David A. Clarke (D-Ward 1) and Corporation Counsel Judith W. Rogers, the top legal adviser to the mayor, insisted that the council had full power to enact laws under which the planning and zoning commissions must operate.
Stephen A. Koczak, president of the D.C. Federation of Citizens Associations, said the planning and zoning commissions, by creating the new diplomatic zone, "exceeded their authority" under a 1964 congressional law that already restricted the location of chanceries in residential areas.
Ironically, the Iranian embassy crisis -- the State Department's current preoccupation -- may impose a legislative timetable that could prevent congressional action on the chancery resolution, Eagleton told a reporter.
Yesterday was the 17th of the 30 legislative days in which Congress may act to overturn the council bill. Normally, Eagleton said, Congress would adjourn over the holiday season, but there is talk that it will recess instead so it could return to session quickly in case of an international emergency.
During recesses, Senate rules require that pro forma sessions be held at least every four days. These typically last less than a minute, with no actual business conducted. But each such session counts as a legislative day. aBy the time Congress resumes in January, only three or four days -- or even no time at all -- may remain for action.