“Republicans should always start with the idea that this is the national capital,” Gingrich tells Washington City Paper, “and we want to work in a way that makes it a showcase for the world of what America’s all about. Most of the policies we adopted worked—not just school choice, but gentrification, tax credits for buying houses in the city. If I was asked by the mayor, I’d be very interested in doing an assessment of what we could do to help the city.”
If the new breed of Republicans have similarly grand ambitions for the District, they’re keeping them quiet. Chaffetz, for his part, isn’t joining those who describe D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray’s mayoral primary win as a revival of Marion Barry. “I haven’t had any negative interactions with Vince Gray,” he says. “It’s nice to go in with a clean slate, and I’ll work together with him. Where we agree, let’s get things done. Where we disagree, let’s work it out.”
At the same time, he’s quick to issue a warning shot about education, the issue that dominated national coverage of the local election. “One of my deep concerns is the education of the city,” he says. “It’s about how to educate kids. It’s not about putting as many people on the payroll as possible.”
And yes, Chaffetz says, things like local school personnel decisions are Congress’ business. “I know that Gray and the new government will want as much autonomy as possible, but that’s not in the Constitution,” he says.
For Chaffetz and his GOP colleagues, a Constitution-driven agenda starts with denying D.C. the independence that Norton—in this last, frustrating Congress—tried to bring it. She introduced an autonomy bill that would have ended an onerous provision that’s unique to the District: all local legislation goes through a 30-day limbo, during which time members of Congress have the ability to mess with it. (The city’s budget also has to go through Capitol Hill for approval, even though local tax revenues pay for most of it.)
Chaffetz has already demonstrated a zeal for putting D.C. in its place on matters of governmental prerogative. In a November 2009 hearing on Norton’s bill, after Mayor Adrian Fenty and Gray gave presentations on the District’s balanced budgets, Chaffetz spoke to quibble with the wording of their statements. His problem? The District officials had referred to what “other states” were allowed to do.
“My concern is that the District of Columbia is not a state,” Chaffetz said, as Fenty and Gray politely waited for his question. “It’s not a state! It is dealt with differently.”
Chaffetz went on to tell the city’s leaders that their tithed relationship with the federal government was actually a source of strength. “The city’s working so well, and it’s so financially prudent, and it’s got such good checks and balances,” he said. “I wish we [in Congress] had some of those financial controls and discipline.”
This is the philosophical difference between Chaffetz and D.C. that isn’t going to be bridged: He likes working on D.C. issues, because he’s fascinated by the role Congress has in guiding the city. Meddling in local laws is, for him, part of the attraction of his committee. Given his politics—and considering just who a new GOP majority would owe favors to—that could set him up for some major fights with the local government. For the past four years, conservatives have been thwarted in efforts to dictate District policy on gay marriage and school vouchers. Come next year, the activists who lost those fights will expect help from Chaffetz.
Opponents of D.C.’s gay marriage law might be quickest on the trigger. The National Organization for Marriage tried, and failed, to get the D.C. Council to kill the bill. Next, NOM failed in a lawsuit to force a referendum. Chaffetz introduced legislation to do that, but it died in the House. In September’s Democratic primary, NOM-supported candidates were thrashed in Ward 5 and in a challenge to Norton. But NOM and every other social conservative organization expect to get another chance if Republicans run the House. Tony Perkins, whose Family Research Council has teamed up with Beltsville, Md.-based Bishop Harry Jackson on gay marriage, says Republicans must keep their word and force a referendum in D.C.
“At a minimum,” says Perkins, “we think people should have a right to vote on it. D.C. has done everything it could to block a vote, and there’s a reason for that, because every single time people get the right to vote on this, they vote for marriage. Maine overturned the legislature. Maine! Not a conservative bastion, by any means.”
Gay marriage activists see—as NOM likes to put it in its Hammer Horror TV ads—that a storm could be coming. “There’s no doubt that Chaffetz would work against us,” says Rick Rosendall, the political vice president of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance. “But if they tried to impose a ballot measure on the District, that would be handing us an advantage. There is strong resistance across the board in D.C., across the spectrum, to congressional interference in our affairs.”
Jason Chaffetz's Cotside Chats
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!)