Meet Jason Chaffetz He thinks D.C. autonomy is unconstitutional. He wants to roll back gay marriage. He'd like to turn Washington into part of Maryland. And if the GOP wins Congress, he's our new boss on Capitol Hill.

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Photo by Darrow Montgomery

A victory party for Eleanor Holmes Norton lacks something. Let’s call that something “suspense.” It’s Sept. 14. Technically, she’s fighting for re-nomination to the non-voting D.C. congressional seat she’s held since 1990. As usual, she’s facing an opponent whose name will be forgotten by tomorrow morning. So the crowd at Busboys and Poets doesn’t need to wait on the District’s molasses-slow vote-counters before they begin to celebrate.

They’re counting faster in Delaware. This is where establishment Republicans backed Rep. Mike Castle in the race for Joe Biden’s old Senate seat. But as those results come in, Castle is trailing far-right political consultant Christine O’Donnell, someone the state GOP chairman said “couldn’t get elected dog catcher.” Shortly before 10 p.m., the AP calls the race for O’Donnell.

Norton is relaxing with a glass of white wine, chatting with DC Vote Chairman Ilir Zherka, when she hears the news. She gives him a high five.

“Wow,” she says. “Wow for us!” She’s made a quick political calculation, and realizes Democrats are likely to hold a key Senate seat—and that much less likely to lose the upper chamber altogether.

But Norton’s expression quickly changes. She frowns. “How awful for him,” she says of Castle. “I’m worried about these new Republicans. I’m much more worried about them than the Republicans who are here. The Republicans who are here are very partisan, but it looks like there are a bunch of people coming in who don’t understand politics at all.”

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National Democrats are panicky by nature, and they’ve been fretting about a Republican takeover of Congress since late last year. Norton is one of those rare Democrats who doesn’t talk down her party’s chances of holding onto power. She’s thought about it, though. She makes it clear she’s “on offense.” But she’s worked with Republicans well in the past: When Newt Gingrich ran the House, Norton says, he was “one of my best friends,” and “helped me immeasurably.”

That brings her to Jason Chaffetz.

If Republicans win the House, the first-term congressman from Utah will run the obscurely named Federal Workforce, Postal Service, and the District of Columbia Subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Washingtonians who understand the unusual legal control Congress wields over the District, though, will know him by a simpler title: the new boss.

Chaffetz’s elevation would represent quite a change. In just under two years here, Chaffetz has opposed Norton’s bill to give D.C. a congressional vote, opposed her bill to give D.C. more autonomy, and filed a bill to force a gay marriage referendum on D.C. And in a Republican House, Chaffetz would have reinforcements, ideological allies who wave the U.S. Constitution like members of the Red Guard used to wave quotations from Chairman Mao.

According to Chaffetz, poking around in the District’s local affairs and keeping D.C. from getting a meaningful vote in Congress is precisely what he was sent to Washington to do. He defeated an incumbent in Utah’s 3rd Congressional District’s Republican primary in 2008 by running to his right on immigration as well as on the more amorphous issue of faithfulness to the Constitution—a platform that, for Chaffetz, included opposing a vote for D.C.

“When I got here,” says Chaffetz, speaking in a separate interview, “I introduced myself to Congresswoman Norton. I told her where was I on this issue. And that’s the last time we talked about an issue. We haven’t worked on any issue together.”

Norton doesn’t contest that.

“He’s in the minority,” she says. “I talk to the chairmen who get things done. There’s not many occasions, when you’re in the majority, that you need to reach out to the minority members. The occasions haven’t prevented themselves.” She allows just a little pessimism. “They will present themselves if we lose the House.”


The Wilson Building has been so focused on local primaries that another question hasn’t gotten much attention as November approaches: What changes for D.C. if, or when, the Republican Party wins control of the House of Representatives?

This isn’t something many locals expected to deal with so soon. The Democratic majority that swept into power four years ago ended an era of congressional meddling in the District’s affairs. When that majority grew two years later, D.C. activists watched a novel voting rights bill start to move toward President Obama’s desk. Old-fashioned efforts by far-flung legislators to override the city’s gun laws, drug laws, and gay marriage compromise, meanwhile, went nowhere. Medical marijuana, blocked for over a decade, finally became law. As a sign of goodwill, Democrats announced they’d apply a municipal smoking ban to the Capitol, the type of law Congress had long exempted itself from.

Then came the backlash. The recession the Democrats inherited lasted longer, and cut deeper, than the country was ready for. The party’s ambitious agenda on health care, energy, and taxes hit major snags. Momentum stalled. Moderate Democrats, newly anxious about re-election, joined a GOP effort to poison Norton’s D.C. vote legislation via an amendment erasing the city’s gun laws—a vote that they hoped would appease constituents who were upset about liberal votes on things like stimulus spending. Ultimately, the D.C. vote bill was shelved. If Democrats lose the House, as most analysts now expect, it’ll die.

Jason Chaffetz's Cotside Chats

On D.C. voting rights [Play]
On Obama's first budget [Play]
On cap-and-trade energy bill [Play]
On having the Postal Service do the Census [Play]
On healthcare bill [Play]
On the Bush tax cuts [Play]
On the GOP's Pledge to America [Play]

Timeline: D.C. under Home Rule

The nation's capitol, Washington, D.C., has governed itself since 1973—kinda. Despite the passing of the Home Rule Charter, which delegated power to an elected mayor and 13-member D.C. Council, Congress still oversees the District. View a timeline of Home Rule in D.C., along with a video series of Congress' greatest hits on the District, from Boy Scouts to Needle Exchange.

Tell Provo What To Do!

If Jason Chaffetz, from Utah, can tell the District how to run its government, why shouldn't Washingtonians vote on how his hometown works? For example...

In Utah County, where Provo is located, the rules for marriage licenses specify the applicants must be “male and female.” Clearly, the District’s enlightened attitude toward gay marriage hasn’t made its way out west yet. Let’s put that to a vote. (After all, at $50 a pop, the licenses could help the county keep its books balanced—and every little bit helps!)

Vote on more of Provo's laws.

Our Readers Say

Good article, but it's Rick Rosendall, not Rosenthal.

Also, there's no window stopping Congress from forcing DC to hold a referendum on marriage equality. Congress can do just about anything it likes with DC. In 1992 it passed legislation forcing DC to hold a referendum on bringing back the death penalty. The same could be done with marriage.

Of course the bill would have to get through both House and Senate and be signed by the president, and then DC voters would actually have to vote to roll back the marriage rights of same-sex couples. In the case of the death penalty, even some death penalty supporters, like council chair John Wilson, voted against the referendum because they didn't like that Congress was forcing it on us; I imagine the same might happen with marriage. I think Chaffetz's seeming lack of interest in imposing a referendum has more to do with doubts that it would succeed than with any expiration date.
The Constitution never says that parts of the District can be disposed of. Therefore the 1847 retrocession to Virginia was not constitutional, nor is retrocession to Maryland constitutional. If he wants to go by the Constitution then he needs to read it better. Congress has the power to give the full equality to the people of the District without statehood or a constitutional amendment today. Instead megalomaniacs like Jason Chaffetz show exactly why the Constitution was created-- to prevent unelected tyrants from imposing their views on marginalized populations.
Chaffetz says: “The Democrats were scared to death of having a vote, because same-sex marriage has failed 31 times in the states."

But he also says: “My concern is that the District of Columbia is not a state.... It’s not a state! It is dealt with differently.”

So, ok, DC should be treated like a state for some things but not for others. Got it. Thanks, Chaffy.

The fact that the district is subject to such whims with every changing political wind shows why only a constitutional amendment giving the District equal representation with the states (a representative and two senators) will guaranty our rights. They would still give us shit, but we would be in the fight on an equal basis.
This gives me a little bit of hope. DC can get its vouchers back, and hopefully a change in our failed gun laws. And it's true-- retrocession to Maryland is our best hope for representation. Statehood is not an option. No Republican will ever vote for the guaranteed two Dem senators.
Chaffy is a dope. What is wrong with an amendment to the constitution to give DC voting representation since we pay Federal taxes. If he were smart he would be pushing such an amendment. To use his logic, the constitution is it. If this country would have stuck to just it with no provision for amendment. Black folks would still be slaves and women wouldn't be allowed to vote. Oh, isn't that what any crazy Morman wants anyway. He was dropped on his head one to many times on his way from California to Utah.
"Chaffetz’s elevation would represent quite a change. In just under two years here, Chaffetz has opposed Norton’s bill to give D.C. a congressional vote, opposed her bill to give D.C. more autonomy, and filed a bill to force a gay marriage referendum on D.C. And in a Republican House, Chaffetz would have reinforcements, ideological allies who wave the U.S. Constitution like members of the Red Guard used to wave quotations from Chairman Mao."

Seriously you are comparing Mao, and patriots that defend the Constitution. Are you all communists? I don't get it. Mao kills 60 million people in his own country, and you act like people who defend what our country was founded on, liberty, freedom, property rights, rule of law, is somehow a bad thing? Chaffetz has been true to his principles, while most politicians don't even have any.
@The STAR Forum, what part did you miss? DC residents not having voting rights for taxes we are paying is not liberty. Obviously you don't live here. If you did you would not feel that way. Chaffy wants to deny our democratic rights to do anything like a tyrant. He may be true to his principles, but he is the same reason why the patriots ran the Brits out of this country who stuck to their principles as tyrants. Maybe on DC Emancipation Day we need to have a tea party. Better yet we need to rename the DC Statehood Party, the DC Tea Party until we get our voting rights.
The STAR Forum asks:

"Seriously you are comparing Mao, and patriots that defend the Constitution."

Nope, just being literary. It is not in any way a political or moral comparison.
Dictating D.C. civic policy from Capitol Hill because you don't agree with the decisions reached democratically by the locals. Isn't small-government leave-it-to-the-locals conservatism great?

@The STAR Forum: So because someone is a Republican it is impossible for them to demagogue, misappropriate historical symbols for modern, unrelated policy fights, or force unpopular policies on a community? When Mr. Chaffetz overturns from Congress laws passed in the D.C. City Council by representatives elected by its citizenry, and appoints by fiat individuals unable to win elections there to positions of authority, how exactly will he be holding true to the principles of democratic civic government, deference to local authority, and the sanctity of personal freedom which our ancestors fought and bled for? How, exactly, will those actions be the actions of a small-government "patriot"? Maybe you don't know what "patriot" means. It means one who loves the Patria, the "Father land"; in other words, the family of the state. How much love, I ask you, is exhibited for his brothers-and-sisters-in-Union by overturning what they have gathered together to enact, without reference to their desires or concerns, and instead enforcing his Party's ideology upon those who disagree with it from above? How "patriotic" is that?
The residents of DC, if they want a vote, they already have one. They can vote for President, something we changed by changing the constitution - legally. If they want representation in the US reps, they have one, one that can vote in committees. If they want a voting rep in the US house, all they have to do is what a large chuck of DC did in the mid 1800's. I think they should join a state. They should be part of Maryland.

I am glad we have someone like Rep. Jason Chaffetz defending the Constitution.

1. The US Constitution says that Congress is in control of D.C.

2. Rep. Chaffetz is doing his job. He is on the committee, and the “ranking” GOP on it.

3. Are you afraid that D.C. or Congress will overturn the D.C. Council votes? They may or may not, but they should vote.
If the GOP gains control of Congress on November 2 and Utah Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz becomes DC's "new boss," Democrats will have themselves to blame.

DC residents are right to be frustrated that Dems in Congress and the White House squandered another opportunity to bring democracy to the nation's capital. Instead of statehood -- the only real path to self-government and full representation in Congress -- Democrats led by Del. Norton pursued "DC voting rights," a scheme to grant the District a single voting seat in the US House. All other Americans get two Senators and one Rep, so the DC voting rights bill would make DC residents one-third citizens in terms of representation.

The bill would not have brought democratic autonomy to DC. As drafted, it would have given Republican Utah another Representative, and also increased the number of Utah's Electoral College votes, with no similar benefit for Dems, since DC already has three electors. If challenged in court, the DC voting rights bill would have been overturned, since the Constitution provides seats in Congress solely to states. Even if unchallenged, Republicans could repeal the DC vote next time they won control of Congress.

The DC voting rights distraction was effective because of two common misconceptions: that representation in Congress equals democracy, and that DC statehood requires a constitutional amendment, with ratification by 2/3 of the states.

In fact, DC can become a state through a simple majority vote in Congress, which was within the reach of Democrats during the past two years. Congress, with a 51% majority yea vote, could reduce the federal enclave to only the federal properties (White House, Capitol, Mall, etc.). (The US Constitution mandates a federal enclave for the capital, but doesn't set its borders.) Precedent exists for changing the borders: in 1846, an Act of Congress carved Arlington out of the District and retroceded it to Virginia.

Congress could then admit the rest of the District to the union as a new state, again by simple majority, just as all other states were admitted after the initial thirteen.

Statehood would be permanent and DC would be free of Congress's tyrannical control. The DC Statehood Green Party, the Stand Up! for Democracy in DC Coalition, and other statehood advocates have made these arguments repeatedly.

The Democratic Party, on Del. Norton's request, deleted the goal of DC statehood from its national platform in 2004 and 2008 in favor of the DC voting rights dead end. I'll leave it to others to speculate about why the two Titanic Parties (Democrats and Republicans) have persistently maintained the District's status as America's "last colony" and "last plantation." For more on the history of the movement for DC democracy, I recommend Sam Smith's "The DC Statehood Papers" (http://www.prorev.com/dcsthdintro.htm).
Thanks to Keith Ivey for posting the correction. I was just logging on to the web edition to point out that my name was misspelled.

As to Dems having themselves to blame in the event Chaffetz becomes "the boss," isn't that what Dems are doing already? I think we need to stop blaming and griping and get to work. But if the GOP retakes the House, it should be a short reign considering some of the extremists who will be taking over various committees.
I like David Weigel and he has been nice to me personally.

But I think this article has serious flaws.

Let's start with something you say toward the end, about DC having 600,000 taxpayers. DC only has 600,000 residents if you round up. And 19% are minors who presumably don't work full time and pay any significant taxes.

Simple google searches reveal that 17% of DC residents live below the poverty level (1/3 are functionally illiterate) and almost 60,000 make less than $15,000. Now very low income, poor people may pay indirect and hidden taxes and may be oppressed by the government that prevents them from learning to read, or from making money braiding hair or driving a taxi etc, but they aren't what most people mean when they say "taxpayer."

Then there is the problem that many DC residents are not taxpayers but tax consumers, i.e. government employees living off the taxes of American taxpayers from other states (and if some educrat is paid $125,000 and then "pays" $45,000 in taxes that does not make them a taxpayer, it is simply an accounting sleight of hand and they are being paid $80,000 in money taken from taxpayers). DC has 42,000 "state and local" government employees, and one suspects many more federal employees.

One of those employees presented in a favorable light in this article is "Delegate" Eleanor Holmes Norton, who was outed during her race for her current seat, to have failed to have paid taxes for almost a decade. So one wonders if she is being counted as one of the "600,000 taxpayers" in DC.

Additionally your article is incoherent in certain ways and unbelievable in others. Like most people at CityPaper, you seem to favor gay marriage. But then you want to associate this with democracy and imply that the evil Republican Congress might prevent it by "interfering" with the city council. But in fact gay marriage might not survive a direct vote by DC residents, which is why supporters have sought to prevent it from being on the ballot as an initiative. And is gay marriage more or less likely to be achieved in some form that survives electoral and legal challenges if DC achieves "statehood" or if it were a new county of Maryland as Chaffetz advocates?

Finally to present Chaffetz as someone who came to his political views because Reagan gave him cufflinks (while simultaneously participating in the media cover-up of Norton's status as a tax scofflaw who blamed her predicament on how she didn't worry her pretty little head about taxes and let hubbie do them) is ridiculous. You wrote a piece about a Congressman and I didn't learn what he reads, what authors have influenced him. I learned about his cot.

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