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Congress slowly loosens grip on D.C.

- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 4, 2010

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton didn't flinch when comedian Stephen Colbert congratulated her on the District of Columbia's becoming a state.

"Not quite," she replied during a segment on his show not long after President Obama's election.

Mr. Colbert may have been joking, but with Democrats in control, Congress seems increasingly willing to loosen its grip on Mrs. Norton's city and allow it to function more like a state. That's no laughing matter for some 600,000 city residents.

Congress still must OK the D.C. budget, and it can veto laws the D.C. Council passes, though that's rare. And despite some optimism early in Mr. Obama's administration, Mrs. Norton still can't vote on the House floor, though she can introduce bills and vote in committees.

But cracks in congressional control have started to appear.

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For the first time in recent memory, Congress didn't attach any restrictions, called "riders," when it approved the city's budget in December. That lifted bans preventing the city from using tax money to help poor women pay for abortions and implementing a decade-old measure legalizing medical marijuana.

And though Congress could have killed a gay marriage bill passed by the D.C. Council, federal lawmakers allowed it to become law without weighing in. Same-sex couples started applying for marriage licenses Wednesday, though a three-day waiting period means they can't actually get married till next week.

Now, Congress is considering bills that would give the city even more freedom. Mrs. Norton, who was elected in 1990 and represents more people than live in Wyoming packed into a city 1/17th the size of Rhode Island, calls it a "moment of opportunity."

Three-quarters of Washington's registered voters are Democrats. Now that Democrats hold the House, Senate and presidency for the first time since 1992, there's support for letting go of some federal control.

Mrs. Norton has introduced two bills to give the city more control over its affairs. The first would eliminate the requirement that Congress approve the city's budget. The second would allow city laws to go into effect immediately, instead of waiting for 30 or 60 days for a congressional all-clear, as in the case of the same-sex-marriage law.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty testified that the budget process often causes delays in services to residents. Most of the hundreds of laws he signs every year, from adoption to zoning, "are of no interest to Congress whatsoever," he said.

Longtime residents are used to Congress having the ultimate say. Gary Thompson, a lawyer who has lived in the District of Columbia since 1992, said it seems that every couple of years some momentum to change that takes hold, then stalls.

"I'm a little bit hardened and a little bit cynical at this point," said Mr. Thompson, who heads a neighborhood group and said he will advocate for civil disobedience, such as blocking entrances to government buildings, if things don't change soon.

The U.S. Constitution makes it clear the city is under congressional control. City residents didn't get the right to vote in presidential elections until 1961. In the 1970s, residents got the delegate spot in Congress and the right to elect their own mayor and council.

Change is slow, however. Mrs. Norton predicted on Mr. Colbert's show a year ago that she would soon be a full voting member; Mr. Colbert called her a "fake congresswoman." But momentum to give her voting powers stalled when an amendment was added in the Senate that would repeal a strict city gun-registration requirement, something Democrats did not want.

Mrs. Norton said she believes she may now have found a way around the amendment and will get the bill passed early this year.

Lifelong resident Jenica Degree, who works at a store that sells political memorabilia, isn't convinced that having a voting congresswoman would change much. Not having one "really doesn't bother me," she said.