Chaffetz would test that theory if he could, but it’s not clear what he can do now. As far as most people can tell, the window for a referendum closed last year. Chaffetz’s bill to force one died in committee. Trying again might be tough, even with a GOP Congress.
“They passed the law and were afraid of a vote,” Chaffetz says. “The Democrats were scared to death of having a vote, because same-sex marriage has failed 31 times in the states. People vote in favor of traditional marriage, particularly the African American community. Look: I think it’s a shame we didn’t have a vote in the United States Congress. I think it’s embarrassing that we didn’t have a vote in the city. But I don’t know what could be done.”
On vouchers, Chaffetz might have more luck. There’s institutional support in the city for a resurrection of the program, which he backs. The pro-voucher groups that lost the fight in 2009 are waiting to see if the next Congress can do them some favors.
“Our feeling is that if Congress changes, significantly, we could get more support for the program,” says Virginia Walden-Ford, the president of D.C. Parents for School Choice. She chooses her words carefully—her group is accused often enough of membership in a conservative plot that she doesn’t want to wave a Republican banner. “My sense is that we have a tough fight ahead, but it would be important to garner some additional support in Congress. If we flip the Senate, that would be a big deal.”
For people who don’t think a national legislature ought to be mucking around in the nitty-gritty of local government, Chaffetz actually has a fix. It just that his solution doesn’t happen to lie along the D.C. statehood/legal autonomy: In Chaffetz’s idea, most of what we now call Washington, D.C., could become Washington, Maryland.
“It’s our nation’s capital and the Constitution deals with it in a unique way,” Chaffetz says. “Washington, D.C., is not a state. My proposal is stronger than Eleanor Holmes Norton’s proposal, because I’d like to see it retroceded back into a state.”
Chaffetz says District residents would be happy if their neighborhoods became part of Maryland while the government buildings around the Mall remained a federal zone. “Not only could they have two senators,” Chaffetz says, “but they could have a voting member and a state legislature. I think anything short of full representation won’t be appealing long term. I’m also a realist. Unless the people of D.C. are supportive of it, unless there’s real bipartisan support, it’s not going to pass.”
Whether the Senate will change hands—something that looks less likely now, as Norton realized on primary night—is one of three big X factors that could shape D.C.’s future relationship with its federal overlords. With only one chamber, the GOP would have less power to meddle.
A second factor is just what kind of Republicans arrive and what kind of Democrats survive. The candidates primed to win competitive races are more conservative—more like Chaffetz—than many Republicans from Congresses past. There’s a perfect example in Tom Davis’s old district, currently represented by Democrat Gerry Connolly. If Republican candidate Keith Fimian wins, he’ll be the first Home Rule-era representative from Northern Virginia to oppose a vote for the District.
“I think our founders are smart people and they wrote the Constitution the way they did,” Fimian said in a July appearance on the Kojo Nnamdi Show, “and I think it’s good the way it is.” Just in case anyone missed his point: “Many people that live in the District choose to live there, and they do so knowing they’re not able to vote.”
The third X factor is Chaffetz’s ambition. Some members of Congress keep mum about their future plans. Chaffetz doesn’t even try to hide the fact that he wants to unseat Republican incumbent Orrin Hatch in 2012. At the same Utah GOP convention that tossed out Bennett for being too moderate, a poll of delegates revealed that a majority would consider replacing Hatch, who gets dinged for the same alleged apostasy. Another 18 months of Tea Party could make Chaffetz the replacement.
“Let’s say I’m a definite maybe at this point,” he says.
A looming Senate run—especially a run from the right against a powerful incumbent—could make Chaffetz particularly hard on the District. After all, what better way appeal to Utah conservatives than to push their agenda on District residents?
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!)