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Gridlock Is Good for Washington (D.C., That Is)

The coming month is when Congress traditionally signals how much it plans to micromanage the annual affairs of the nation’s capital. The early signals are that it will be less than usual — potentially much less.

The most pressing issue is whether lawmakers move to stop the government of the District of Columbia from spending locally raised tax dollars however it wants, without first getting congressional permission. District voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum in April declaring such local budget autonomy.

Some conservative Republicans have grumbled about pushing a bill to overturn the referendum, or suing in federal court on the grounds that only Congress can cede its own constitutional control over the city. But no one in the GOP leadership has signed on to either idea — most importantly, not Republican Rep. Darrell Issa of California, whose Oversight and Government Reform Committee has jurisdiction over D.C. affairs. He’s been a supporter for years of loosening the congressional leash on municipal affairs.

Given the intensely partisan nature of the Capitol, any late-starting move by the GOP to legislate against budget autonomy would have no chance of success before the local referendum takes effect at the end of June. In part, that’s because many Democrats, notably in the filibuster-governed Senate, would react reflexively against whatever the Republicans want — even though they share an eye-rolling distaste for the financial management shortcomings and ethical lapses that characterize the current local government.

The generalized gridlock also gives D.C. residents and officials reason to expect only minimally sustained GOP interest in making Washington an experiment station for their most conservative social policies.

In the past two decades, Republicans have routinely added policy riders to the annual spending bill for the District on topics including school vouchers, needle exchanges, abortion, gun control and union labor power. But there’s no reason to expect such a policy-packed bill will become law this year because neither the House nor the Senate looks likely to even get so far in the process as passing  initial versions that would set up talks on a final deal.

That’s because the two sides look hopelessly far apart on a grand total for the bill — about 15 percent, or more than $3 billion. The bill also governs the budgets of the Treasury and a hodgepodge of financial regulators, which means stalemates on plenty of other policy fronts. So the almost certain outcome is a continuing resolution that delivers the city its annual federal subsidy with few strings attached.

Separate bills in the hopper would ban the District from spending its own money on abortions, and would prevent any woman more than 20 weeks pregnant from having an abortion in the city. Those might get votes in the House, where there is a solid majority opposed to abortion rights, but stand no chance in the Senate.

The final way in which lawmakers have been jawboning about a local matter, but won’t end up turning their rhetoric into legislation: The Washington Redskins. Nine House Democrats, including D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, and one Republican — Tom Cole of Oklahoma, the only American Indian in Congress — wrote this week to urge team owner Dan Snyder and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to abandon the team’s nickname, which many view as offensive. Snyder is not open even to discussing the idea, and there’s no sense any legislative effort to punish the team — by repealing the Redskins’ trademark, for example — will go anywhere.

All this was the topic of my most recent appearance on WAMU, the NPR affiliate in Washington. You can listen to it here or read about it here.

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