The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Capitol fence meant D.C. couldn’t enact laws. Vice President Harris’s office stepped in.

A passerby stops to look at the Capitol building from behind a tall fence topped with razor wire on Jan. 21.
A passerby stops to look at the Capitol building from behind a tall fence topped with razor wire on Jan. 21. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

The new security fencing around the U.S. Capitol led to an unusual scene last week — a city employee and a staffer for Vice President Harris, meeting up in a hotel lobby to hand off boxes stuffed with legislative texts.

The “cloak and dagger” operation, as D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) described it, was the District government’s solution to an unusual problem: Federal law requires the council to deliver, by hand, copies of each bill it passes to the U.S. Congress.

But after the brazen Jan. 6 breach of the Capitol by a mob trying to overturn President Donald Trump’s electoral defeat, strict new security measures were put in place. And staffers from the city government weren’t allowed through the seven-foot-tall fence to deliver bills.

“The council has a requirement under the Home Rule Act to transmit all legislation to Congress for congressional review, but we can’t get through those fences,” Mendelson said at a news conference Monday morning, explaining why the council plans to vote Tuesday on emergency legislation to temporarily carry out seven bills that cannot be permanently enacted until Congress gets 30 days to review them.

“We’ve been trying to figure out for the last 10 days how we can deliver legislation, because we cannot get through the fence, literally.”

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By the time Mendelson revealed the dilemma to reporters, his staff had come up with an unconventional solution.

On Friday, a council employee rendezvoused at a local hotel — Mendelson said he believes it was the Kimpton George, which is four blocks north of the Capitol and outside the fencing — with an aide to Harris, who serves as president of the Senate. The Senate copies of the bills were transmitted that way. On Monday, a staffer from the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) came to the Wilson Building, the District’s version of city hall, to pick up the boxes of bills destined for the House.

With the bills thus delivered to both the Senate and the House, the congressional review period could begin.

The council will still need to vote Tuesday if it wants to extend bills that will otherwise expire during the congressional review period, including one that created a police reform commission and one instituting rules for “streateries” that allow restaurants to use street and sidewalk space during the pandemic.

Congress almost never takes action to block D.C.’s local legislation, but it retains the power to do so.

‘Streateries’ are thriving in only some parts of D.C. Bowser wants to expand them.

Mendelson said his staff will have to keep planning hotel handoffs until the fences come down or they work out another solution.

It is just one more example, he said, of the inconvenience caused by the fencing — which has also cut off access for Capitol Hill residents to their beloved sledding hill and other green spaces — and of the unfair limits on the city’s power of self-determination.

The District, he argued, shouldn’t have to submit its local legislation to Congress at all, either through hand delivery or more modern methods.

“It is this crazy home rule situation which would be avoided if we had statehood,” Mendelson said. “It is an irrational and unsustainable situation that we cannot pass permanent legislation that can become permanent law, because right now we cannot deliver these bills to Congress.”

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