Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) intends to abolish the House Government Reform subcommittee on the District, assuming oversight of the capital city personally as the new chairman of the full panel.
The step, which the Northern Virginia congressman has discussed with Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), would mark a historic milestone in Congress's long, contentious relationship with the District.
The House District Committee was created in 1808 and, in the 20th century, became a bastion for white, southern segregationists who wielded power freely over the mostly black, disenfranchised city. The panel reluctantly gave up some influence during the civil rights era and Washington's transition to home rule in 1974 and then faded to a subcommittee after the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress.
For Davis, 54, the change would continue a striking consolidation of power over the Washington region's affairs. GOP leaders this week awarded the lawmaker from Fairfax County the Government Reform Committee, which also oversees civil servants, federal contractors, governmental investigations and the U.S. Postal Service.
In announcing his plans in an interview, Davis -- tentatively seconded by Norton, also a member of the committee -- said the move would mean more autonomy for the District's elected leaders. It also would preserve the voice and clout of both Davis and Norton, who helped guide Congress's 1995 takeover of the nearly bankrupt city, including the establishment of a financial control board, which disbanded in 2001.
"I have decided not to have a D.C. subcommittee. I will probably make it part of the full committee, where I'll personally have the oversight. I'll be the guy in charge," said Davis, who worked through the night after his promotion Wednesday making committee assignments in his House Cannon Building office.
The committee structure will be set by Davis in February and must be ratified by the committee's 44 members, but opposition to a chairman is rare. He said he would meet soon with Norton, Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) and members of the council.
Norton said abolition of the subcommittee was "one good option" and "no great loss" to the District or to members of Congress, who see membership as a thankless chore. But Norton said she and Davis would talk further about how Congress should exercise its constitutional duties while moving the city toward full autonomy.
"We're trying to think through the proper role and function of congressional oversight," Norton said. "Bear in mind, nobody wants to be on the D.C. subcommittee, anyway. Not only is it unfair for the District's business to preoccupy the Congress, it's a waste of time for the Congress."
Although a mostly dormant Senate counterpart subcommittee, as well as House and Senate appropriations subcommittees, would remain in place, elimination of the House D.C. subcommittee would remove one arena for members seeking to use the District as a political football, analysts said.
Under the arrangement, hearings, legislation and other District-related business would go directly before Davis, who could then create another subcommittee, and Norton, who could gain another subcommittee assignment.
Reaction from city leaders was cautious but receptive. A spokesman for Williams, who is in Miami for a meeting of the National League of Cities, said the mayor looked forward to discussing the "fundamental restructuring" with Davis.
"It could mean more concentration of home rule on the local level, where it needs to be," Cropp said. "Tom Davis has been a friend of the District and recognizes local authority."
Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) said, "I am pleased that Representative Davis appears to be moving us toward less micromanagement by Congress."
Jamin B. Raskin, a professor of constitutional law at American University, noted the symbolism of a Northern Virginia member taking the step in cooperation with the District's elected, nonvoting delegate. From World War II onward, notably under South Carolina Democrat John L. McMillan, the subcommittee's forerunner resisted desegregation and civil rights for the District, then the fiefdom of a presidential commission.
"The committee was the bastion of segregationists and Dixiecrats who treated the District like a personal plantation," Raskin said. "So the die-hard segregationists like McMillan get their historical comeuppance."
Regional business leaders, congressional colleagues and political analysts noted that Davis has emerged as an unofficial mayor of federal Washington. Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) called Davis's role "unprecedented." Greater Washington Board of Trade President Robert A. Peck assessed his clout as "incredible," and Raskin said his regional political reach "has no logical stopping point."
Davis accepted the praise with pleasure. "I'd rather be chairman of the committee than governor," Davis said. But he noted that his term as chairman could expire in six years, when Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), who would be 81, completes his fifth term.