The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion When it comes to Congress, Bowser and the council must be on the same page

D.C. Council chairman Phil Mendelson, left, and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser on Capitol Hill in September 2019. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
4 min

It should have come as no surprise when the House voted last week in favor of resolutions disapproving two D.C.-enacted bills — one allowing noncitizens to vote in D.C. elections and a second revising the city’s criminal code. House Republicans had tipped their hand a year ago, with one member, Rep. Michael Cloud (Tex.), stating flat-out, “Keeping the D.C. government in check will surely be a priority of Republicans … when the gavels are in our hands.”

The fact to pay attention to? Neither bill had the backing of D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D). She neither signed nor vetoed the voting bill, and the criminal code revisions were enacted over her objections.

Another eyebrow-raising aspect of the votes, however, was the size of Democratic defections in the House: According to The Post, “42 Democrats joined Republicans to reject the legislation allowing noncitizen voting and 31 joined Republicans to reject D.C.’s Revised Criminal Code Act of 2022.”

That all signals a tough road ahead for the city. It should also be a wake-up call.

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Responding to last week’s House votes, Bowser said Congress “should not be meddling in D.C.’s local matters. Unless they are taking up a bill for Statehood, we demand they leave us alone.” Other local leaders issued competing news releases echoing that grievance.

A gentle reminder: The Home Rule Act states “the Congress of the United States reserves the right, at any time, to exercise its constitutional authority as legislature for the District, by enacting legislation for the District on any subject, whether within or without the scope of legislative power granted to the Council by this Act, including legislation to amend or repeal any law in force in the District prior to or after enactment of this Act and any act passed by the Council.”

Moreover, this tidbit of truth: Once agreement on the city’s budget is reached between the mayor and the council, it is adopted and transmitted to the president of the United States for submission to Congress for approval.

No amount of “leave us alone” rhetoric can get around that stark fact. It doesn’t matter which party controls Congress, the District’s business is, under the Constitution and the Home Rule Act, also the business of Congress.

The difference being whether congressional oversight is benign and friendly, which has been the case with a Democratically controlled Congress, or hostile, as was the situation in the 1990s when a Republican-led Congress turned over daily management of many city functions to a five-member financial control board, including critical personnel and procurement responsibilities.

Statehood for D.C. would most assuredly cure the governance problem. But the prospect of that happening within the next two years is rather bleak. Meanwhile, there’s a government to operate.

Which brings us to this moment.

Avoiding congressional disapproval of D.C.-enacted laws is important. Having a Democratic Senate — and President Biden with his veto pen close by — are somewhat reassuring. Enactment of D.C.’s fiscal 2024 budget, is, however, essential.

House Republicans might be operating with a razor-thin majority, but they aren’t going away. Neither are the 49 Republicans in the 100-member U.S. Senate.

The city needs a well-crafted legislative strategy for getting the budget through Congress with as little damage as possible.

Certain expectations will be met.

Expect the D.C. budget appropriations bill to be flyspecked by Republican extremists and excised of anything deemed objectionable. Expect carefully crafted and locally funded spending programs to be either turned upside down or rejected outright by House appropriators. City officials can expect summonses from House Republicans for haranguing and harassment at hearings — all for the benefit of constituents in red congressional districts back home. Expect the House GOP to try and reduce the D.C. government to a punching bag. Even expect several House Republicans to try and achieve their stated goal of repealing the Home Rule Act.

It need not turn out this way.

First, Bowser, Council chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and other council members need to get their acts together — literally. Nothing from the District should make its way to Capitol Hill without the unified, unequivocable support of the mayor and council. No end-runs, backdoor dissent or private, self-serving lobbying. City leaders must be on the same page, whether testifying before committees or doing the legwork — the staff visits, consultations, information exchanges — so essential in the legislative process.

Bowser and Mendelson should also set aside their hidebound parochialism and reach out to regional allies and civic, labor and business advocates to help advance D.C.’s interests in Congress. Previous D.C. mayors and councils have done so with success. Former mayor Anthony Williams and former council chair Linda Cropp come to mind.

What’s not needed is grandstanding, pontificating and moans of the victimized.

What’s needed now: Mature political leadership — more than ever.