On the eve of a House committee hearing on the District’s budget, two top Republicans on the panel said Wednesday that they had no ulterior motives and were not angling to restore congressional control of the city’s finances.
Thursday morning’s hearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on health care, District of Columbia, census and the National Archives will “examine the fiscal sustainability of D.C. spending,” according to a news release issued by the committee. D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray is scheduled to testify, as are D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown and Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi.
The release caught the eye of local officials and activists because it referenced the now-defunct Financial Control Board and noted that “[t]here are seven separate ‘triggers’ which would automatically revive” the congressionally established body.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the full Oversight committee, said in a brief interview that the hearing should not be taken as a sign that he or his colleagues believed the District’s finances were in crisis.
“We don’t yet see anything other than the ordinary concern for a city that does have some fiscal challenges that they have to meet,” Issa said. “We have concern but we don’t have any expectation of the control board needing to come back.”
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), who chairs the D.C. subcommittee, said the hearing had no “agenda, nefarious or otherwise.”
“There’s no ‘lay in wait for a gotcha’ moment,” Gowdy said. “It truly is: Tell us about the fiscal state of the District.”
The D.C. Council is wading through Gray’s proposed $10.8 billion budget for fiscal 2012, making the District’s finances a natural subject for a hearing, and Issa said he saw the District as similar to other cities and small states going through “a difficult budget time.”
But mistrust of Congress is running high in some quarters of the District, in the wake of repeated legislative efforts to prohibit D.C. from spending its own money to pay for abortions for low-income women. The activist group DC Vote has a rally planned on Capitol Hill on Wednesday evening to “challenge our opponents to free D.C.’s local budget from congressional interference.”
The D.C. government has also been the subject of multiple ethical controversies in recent months, including allegations by former mayoral candidate Sulaimon Brown that he cut deal last year to support Gray’s campaign in exchange for a city job. Gray has denied the allegation, but the council is conducting a broader probe into Gray’s hiring practices.
The House Oversight panel is also investigating the Brown affair, but Gowdy — a former prosecutor — said he had “zero expectation that that will be addressed” at Thursday’s hearing.
Issa was less absolute. “We try not to bring up half-done things whenever possible,” he said. “It doesn’t mean they won’t [come up], but for the most part this is a meeting with the mayor. It’s part of our oversight.”
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) released in advance her opening statement for the hearing, calling it “unprecedented in recent history,” and notes that the Appropriations Committee is usually the only congressional panel to hold hearings on the D.C. budget.
She also claimed that “the House Republican majority has spent more time focusing on the local affairs of the District than at any time since the 1973 Home Rule Act.” And Norton complained that she would not be allowed to read her opening statement at Thursday’s hearing.
Gowdy said that time constraint was actually due to Gray’s schedule.
“Her mayor has to go somewhere,” Gowdy said. “It’s an accommodation to him. We’re in a Catch-22 – we either cut into her time or we cut into his time. He’s the witness.”