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Senate Bill Repeals Ban On D.C. Lobbying Funds

While school vouchers have drawn the spotlight during debate over the fiscal 2004 District of Columbia spending bill, statehood and voting rights activists have locked their sights on a few short lines that would allow local funds to be used for lobbying activities.

The Senate’s version of the bill would repeal a longtime prohibition on the use of locally raised funds to lobby for statehood or full Congressional representation.

The legislation would, however, continue to ban the use of federal monies for lobbying for or against any issue before Congress or state legislatures.

“Just the fact that that prohibition was there was symbolically offensive to a lot of people,” said Ilir Zherka, executive director of D.C. Vote, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that promotes Congressional representation for the District. Along with Common Cause and the law firm Arnold & Porter, D.C. Vote spearheaded efforts to repeal the ban on local funds.

The change is significant, several voting rights and statehood advocates noted, because it will not only allow the District to pay for private lobbyists on the issues but also for related costs such as staff and office supplies.

It would also allow the city to fund its Shadow Congressional delegation, a slate of two Senators and one Representative created in 1990 to specifically lobby for statehood. Although the city provides office space to the trio, it does not provide any additional resources and the positions are unpaid.

“The city should be able to pay for any lobby activities of any kind on the Hill,” said Shadow Rep. Ray Browne (D). “Like any other city, we should be able to represent our interests.”

Shadow Sen. Paul Strauss (D) echoed Browne’s sentiments: “It’s one thing for Congress to restrict money for any kind of lobbying.” But because the regulation is specific to a certain area, “you’re restricting content of speech,” he said.

D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams (D) said the city is already working to expand its lobby operation on a variety of issues and would take any changes in the appropriations bill into consideration. A source close to the mayor’s office, however, said it is highly probable that the District would hire a statehood-specific lobbyist if the local funds became available.

Still, several voting rights supporters said the repeal could face challenges in the House, which has maintained the prohibition in its version, when the two chambers meet in conference committee to hash out the bill’s details. The Senate is scheduled to continue debating its version on the floor today.

Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee on the District of Columbia and inserted the language into the Senate version, declined to comment on the provision Thursday, stating only that the repeal “is a conferenceable item.”

“We’ll push for all items in the conference,” he added.

A spokesman for Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), who chairs the House subcommittee on the District of Columbia, said the lawmaker considers the language “up for discussion” but declined to elaborate.

Browne suggested that the local funds provision, while important, could fall victim to more visible issues, such as school vouchers.

“What happens to this piece, unfortunately, is the city will have three or four critical issues … and we just don’t get them all, and this is the one that’s always left out in the cold,” Browne said of previous repeal efforts.

But D.C. Vote organizers remain “optimistic” the Senate version will prevail, Zherka said, adding: “The change in the law is part of continuing progress in this area.”

In coming months, voting rights advocates could see funds available from another source as well. D.C. City Councilman Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) plans to introduce legislation in October to create a commission to raise funds for the Shadow delegation’s lobbying activities. A spokesman for Mendelson said the commission, which would not receive local funds, would include nine members: five appointed by the mayor and four by the Council.

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