D.C. elected officials are trying, and so far failing, to find a way to fight back against the most hostile Congress and presidential administration they have faced in decades.
Part state, part city and granted self-government only in the 1970s, the District has always endured an uneasy relationship with the federal government, which retains the seldom-used power to meddle with the District’s laws and budget.
But not since the 1990s — when a federally empowered control board seized the levers of government to rescue the city from financial crisis — has the District faced the prospect of such aggressive interference in its affairs, say longtime observers of local politics.
“I want to be optimistic, but I don’t wake up many mornings feeling good about things,” said Arrington Dixon, who served on the first D.C. Council, elected in 1974. “The [federal] leadership here seems to be so harsh and insensitive. We’re at their mercy in many respects. We’re on the menu.”
The twin threats to D.C.’s autonomy are clear. On one hand are congressional Republicans determined to gut they city’s progressive policies, including the legalization of assisted suicide and marijuana use, and some of the nation’s strictest gun controls.
On the other is a president who has declared an unofficial war on America’s large, liberal cities, promising a crackdown on their sizable immigrant populations and promising to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which extended Medicaid coverage to many of the urban poor, including more than 10 percent of D.C. residents.
The District’s perilous circumstances were illustrated over the past week. Just days after President Trump’s executive order that federal dollars be stripped from cities that harbor illegal immigrants, the House threatened to ramp up oversight of the District — or perhaps dismember it and return its land to Maryland, as Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) suggested Tuesday during a House Oversight Committee hearing.
Still unclear is how local elected leaders will react to this onslaught.
Democratic officials in other big cities have adopted a defiant tone toward Trump. In the District, with its unique vulnerability to federal intervention, such an approach risks antagonizing a president who could help deflect attacks from members of his own party in Congress.
Such practical calculations must be weighed against the mood of the District’s overwhelmingly Democratic electorate, many of whom have joined the protests that have convulsed the city since the presidential inauguration and 96 percent of whom did not vote for Trump.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has so far tried to walk a fine line. She has voiced clear, albeit muted, support for the District’s status as an immigrant “sanctuary city” and wrote a letter to the House GOP leadership in defense of Obamacare. But she has avoided specific attacks on the president or members of Congress, and some say she has been too passive.
Sapna Pandya, executive director of the immigrant rights group Many Languages One Voice, said the District should be making backup plans in case Trump follows through on promises to cut federal funds from cities whose police officers do not cooperate with immigration authorities.
Bowser and the council “need to be proactive in identifying some of the alternate sources of money in the city, so we don’t get the rug pulled out from under us,” she said.
Outside the mayor’s office, city officials have produced an ad hoc flurry of responses to the new reality, from Attorney General Karl A. Racine’s appearance on a British television news station to denounce Trump’s travel ban to instructions on the D.C. Public Library’s official Twitter account for residents who wish to download an audiobook of George Orwell’s “1984.” (All hard copies were checked out.)
The disjointed messaging has led to growing frustration among activists, and even among the politicians themselves. Anxieties boiled over at a breakfast meeting Tuesday between the mayor and local lawmakers, with council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) warning that they were being caught flat-footed.
“These people are bullies, and if we think that accommodation is going to get us anywhere, I think that’s wrong,” Cheh said. She said D.C. residents “are looking to us for leadership on this” but that the city had done “essentially nothing” to counter House Republicans’ threats.
The discussion, which ended inconclusively, showed the extent of city officials’ disarray. Beverly L. Perry, a senior adviser to the mayor, said she had identified 25 Republican and Democratic members of Congress, in the House and Senate, who might be “sensitive” toward the District and was trying to meet with them.
That approach dismayed council member David Grosso (I-At Large), who said it was a strategic misstep to court members of the more right-leaning House.
“I think it’s an absolute waste of time,” he said in an interview. “We’re not going to move the House, in my opinion. We can, issue by issue, move votes in the Senate.”
Appearing later that day at a news conference in defense of the District’s law allowing terminally ill patients to end their lives with the help of a doctor — a law Chaffetz said he plans to block — Bowser said her administration is working to forge alliances with Senate leaders but declined to go into details.
“Just understand that there are things you will see and hear about and things that will happen and are happening behind the scenes that you won’t,” she said.
The GOP-dominated federal government’s new assertiveness comes at a challenging time for D.C. elected officials, who enter 2017 in a fractious state.
Bowser’s relationships with some council members, in particular Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), are in disrepair after a series of drawn-out legislative fights. She is working with one eye on council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7), the former mayor she unseated in 2014 and who many believe will try to return the favor next year.
Mendelson said in an interview that he recognizes the need to guard against federal interference but that there are no obvious paths to agreement with Republicans on Capitol Hill.
“There’s not a clear strategy,” he said. “The fundamental problem is that these are members of Congress who are not answerable to the District, who can use the District to score political points.”
Since Congress passed the District of Columbia Home Rule Act in 1973, tension has been built into dealings between occupants of the John A. Wilson Building and their neighbors to the east and west on Pennsylvania Avenue.
For much of that time, however, the relationship stayed in a precarious balance. During only four of the 44 years of the Home Rule era have Republicans controlled both houses of Congress and the White House. For the past eight years, former president Barack Obama was a last line of defense against Republican designs on the District.
Even during previous periods of GOP ascendancy, the District’s leaders often stayed on good terms with congressional Republicans of a more moderate bent.
Tom Davis, a former seven-term Republican congressman from Northern Virginia, said he worked well with District officials when he served on and for a time led the House committee responsible for the District.
That included the control board period, which ultimately left the city on sound financial footing after years of overspending by mayors Marion Barry and Sharon Pratt Kelly.
“We worked really well together,” Davis said. “There was a recognition that this was the nation’s capital. We wanted to make it proud.”
Davis was a proponent of expanded congressional representation for the District and said that unless constitutional or federal policy issues were involved, he preferred to leave the District alone to govern itself.
“This is the capital of the free world, and they don’t get a vote in Congress — but they pay federal taxes,” he said. “My view is, you give them some leeway.”
Chaffetz has indicated that he thinks otherwise.
He declined to comment through a spokeswoman, MJ Henshaw. She pointed to statements Chaffetz made in a recent guest column for The Washington Post, co-authored with Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint, including that the “awesome responsibility of acting as the state for the citizens of the District lies not in the hands of a local government, but with Congress.”
Bernard Demczuk, former assistant vice president for District relations at George Washington University, said city officials have to balance their constituents’ demands for moral leadership in the Trump era with realpolitik.
Demczuk said that the mayor, and perhaps other high-ranking city officials, should make an earnest effort to work hand-in-hand with the White House and Congress. At the same time, he said, council members and community activists can take a more fervent tone in opposing Republican initiatives that would harm the District.
“I think, quite frankly, it’s a good-cop, bad-cop scenario,” Demczuk said.
Whether such maneuvers will have any effect remains to be seen. Bowser’s creation of a $500,000 legal-defense fund for D.C. immigrants last month suggests the District could be in for a rough ride, no matter what tone its leaders adopt.
For Bowser, the fund was an incremental step toward meeting the demands of immigrant rights activists, who had criticized her mild statements in defense of the city’s sanctuary policy. The fund was smaller than those in some other cities, and the mayor announced it in a statement that did not mention Trump, let alone use the firebrand rhetoric in which other big-city mayors have denounced the new president.
For Chaffetz and Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who heads the subcommittee for District affairs and is chairman of the far-right House Freedom Caucus, it made no difference. Two weeks ago, they sent Bowser a letter saying they believed the fund conflicted with federal law, and they planned to investigate.