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D.C. Wants Legislative Autonomy

If Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., has her way, Congress will no longer have to provide a final say on D.C. Council legislation.

Seeking to cut paperwork and time, Norton on Tuesday introduced a bill that would scrap the usual 30-day congressional review process for legislation passed by the council and signed into law by the mayor.

She says the council could ditch “Kafkaesque make-work procedures” without costing Congress any of its authority. Under the proposal, members could still move to amend or overturn D.C. legislation at any time.

The review process, which takes 30 days for civil statute bills and 60 days for criminal statute bills, sometimes delays D.C. measures from becoming law for many months. Only days when both chambers are in session count toward the total.

For instance, in the case of a budget autonomy referendum transmitted to Congress shortly after an April 23 D.C. special election, the 35-day review period for charter amendments stretched into late July. Norton said the congressional review period for a bill to change the word “handicap” to “disability” lasted nine months.

She’s pitching the legislative autonomy proposal as a way to eliminate waste. The approach could help her gain traction with House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who has backed greater autonomy for D.C. as a means of making government more efficient.

“The bill would promote efficiency and cost savings for the District, and carry out a policy stressed by Congress of eliminating needless paperwork and make-work redundancy,” she said in a statement introducing the bill.

Norton also brought numbers from the council to back up her claim. The council estimates that eliminating the review period could save 5,000 hours of employee labor and 160,000 sheets of paper per council period.

“The congressional review process is a counterproductive procedure that hampers speedy enactment of laws in the District of Columbia,” council Chairman Phil Mendelson said. “Further, this bill will eliminate the need for emergency and temporary legislation, and will pave the way for more streamlined government.”

The congressional review process was established under the Home Rule Act of 1973. Since then, more than 4,500 acts have been transmitted to Congress, with only three resolutions disapproving D.C. legislation enacted in response.

While Congress has not overturned a D.C. Council bill since 1991, it has opted to attach appropriations riders to the D.C. spending bill to enact policy changes. In the past, riders have placed limits on social policies such as abortion and needle-exchange programs.

Local advocates are hoping the new budget autonomy law will free them from future riders, but its future is uncertain.

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