On Tuesday, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton re-introduced a favorite piece of legislation: a bill that would allow the District’s local leaders to enact laws without review from Congress — a process that forces the city to wait at least 30 congressional business days before implementing the people’s will.
This time, however, there’s a twist. Whereas previous efforts have been framed in terms of “legislative autonomy” and the District’s right to govern its own affairs, Norton’s new bill is titled the “District of Columbia Paperwork Reduction Act.”
That’s a reference to the kludgy system of “emergency” and “temporary” and “congressional review emergency” bills that the D.C. Council deals with in order to handle the city’s business while still dealing with the congressional review period. It means rather than take one or two votes on a pressing issue, lawmakers end up taking five votes or more — on an emergency declaration, an emergency act that is effective for 90 days, two votes on a temporary act that is effective for 225 days, two votes on a permanent act and additional congressional review emergencies if the review period stretches on.
As Norton put it in a statement on the new bill, “during my service in Congress, I have never seen a more Sisyphus-like paperwork regime than the congressional requirement for the D.C. Council to needlessly submit never-reviewed legislation to Congress for required layover periods.” The council estimates that 5,000 employee-hours and 160,000 sheets of paper could be saved every two-year legislative period if layovers were eliminated.
The irony of all this is that Congress has acted to overturn a D.C. law only three times during a review period, most recently in 1991. Typically, if Congress wants to meddle with local leaders’ decisions, it does so through the appropriations process, by adding “riders” to spending bills.
Norton said in an interview the pivot to the paperwork argument was quite deliberate, hoping an appeal to efficiency rather than the inalienable rights of District residents might tamp down opposition from House Republicans. “We talk about it in terms of rights … but Congress cares nothing about granting our rights,” she said. “It is process. It is procedure. It’s really isn’t about substance, which is the best argument for doing it.”
“What I’m trying to do is find somebody who will see, through the paperwork issue, that this is frankly insane,” Norton added.
The name of the bill has a long history on Capitol Hill: A search for “Paperwork Reduction Act” turns up more than 400 bills introduced since the mid-1970s. Many have made it into law, including a 1980 bill that created a new government-wide paperwork tracking system.
What remains to be seen is whether Norton can garner any Republican support for her red-tape-cutting quest. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the crucial House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, hasn’t endorsed this measure the way that he endorsed a budget autonomy measure, which gave that effort significant momentum.
Norton said she has had “substantial discussions” with Issa about legislative autonomy issues and that he proposed a “fairly complicated alternative” as a compromise. Instead, Norton is moving forward with her “clean” bill, and she said she hopes Senate interest in passing a companion measure will create some momentum on the House side. Senate staff are gathering information on the D.C. legislative process, she said, in anticipation of a possible bill.
A spokesman for Issa did not return a message seeking comment Thursday morning.