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As House panel backs RFK site redevelopment, DC inches closer to a football future

Lawmakers mostly united, except over use of public funds to build a new stadium

Mayor Muriel Bowser talks with reporters after a House Oversight and Accountability Committee markup of the D.C. Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium Campus Revitalization Act on Wednesday.
Mayor Muriel Bowser talks with reporters after a House Oversight and Accountability Committee markup of the D.C. Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium Campus Revitalization Act on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

A House panel on Wednesday advanced legislation that could pave the way for the Washington Commanders’ return to the District and residential and commercial redevelopment at the underused RFK Stadium site.

In a rare show of bipartisanship on a D.C.-centric issue, House Oversight Committee Democrats and Republicans overwhelmingly supported a 99-year lease extension from the federal government to the District, advancing the measure 31-9. 

It was the latest step in a long saga for Washington football lovers who hope to bring the once storied franchise back from Maryland. And it resulted in the formation of surprising alliances over the question of whether public funds should be used to build an NFL stadium.

“I’m not opposed to the NFL team coming, I’m not opposed to any NFL team coming. I hope that one comes to Washington, D.C. because I think that the nation’s capital should have an NFL team to rally around,” said Rep. Scott Perry, a Pennsylvania Republican and chair of the House Freedom Caucus who introduced an amendment barring the use of public funds to rebuild a stadium. “I just don’t think the taxpayers should be on the hook for people that can afford to pay for it.”

NFL owners approved the sale of the Commanders for more than $6 billion this year, ending the controversial multi-decade reign of former owner Daniel Snyder, whose alleged sexual misconduct and financial impropriety led to a congressional investigation and a hefty fine from the league. The team’s new principal owner, Josh Harris, is a billionaire who also owns teams in the NBA and NHL.

Liberal stalwart Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., who is the committee’s ranking member and has been a vocal supporter of home rule for D.C., embraced Perry’s logic.

“If we’re going to dispose of federal land to a state, a city, a county … for a 99-year period on very favorable terms, then we should not additionally say there can be government financing that goes along with a stadium,” Raskin said.

Oversight Chair James Comer, R-Ky., joined the likes of Democratic Reps. Gerry Connolly of Virginia and Dan Goldman of New York in opposing the amendment. Comer argued it could hamstring the District in its attempts to attract the team, while Connolly framed it as a states’ rights issue — or in this case, District’s rights.

“We are now intruding into their finances, their decision-making and their sovereignty,” Connolly said.

The amendment ultimately failed, 13-24, with Raskin and just two other Democrats voting in support alongside Perry and other conservatives members of the committee, like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Paul Gosar of Arizona. Meanwhile, Comer joined a mostly Democratic bloc to spike the proposal.

“Let me say that was the most interesting coalition of yeses and nos in the history of the House Oversight Committee. Historians will be studying that roll call vote for decades,” Comer joked.

Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser, who attended the markup, has been open about her desire to bring the Commanders back to D.C. She told reporters Wednesday that she opposed the Perry amendment.

The measure to extend the lease was introduced in late July by Comer with support from Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C. The bill still needs approval from the full House and Senate, as well as President Joe Biden. And any plans for redeveloping the area must go through the local government.

Comer and Norton are odd bedfellows who have squared off this Congress over the fate of the District.

Comer and other House Republicans have been critical of the local government, and the liberal City Council in particular, for passing legislation that would have revised the city’s criminal code. Congress dealt a blow to local officials when they overturned that effort in March. And the House GOP has vowed to keep a closer eye on the city, holding hearings on crime, alleged mismanagement and proposed legislation that would overhaul the District’s voting laws. 

But on the future of the RFK stadium site, they are in sync.

“The members of this committee do not see eye-to-eye on every issue, but we’ve come together for the good of our capital city,” Comer said at the markup.

Passage of the bill would not guarantee the return of the Commanders, who now play at FedEx Field in Raskin’s home state of Maryland. But it would extend the lease between the District and the federal government, which owns the site, well past its current 2038 expiration date. 

It allows for the construction of a stadium, commercial and residential developments, or recreational facilities, provided requirements for open space and accessibility to the Anacostia River are met. Currently, the site is primarily home to parking lots, sports fields and the stadium, which is slated for demolition and has sat mostly vacant since the Major League Soccer team D.C. United relocated to Audi Field.

The legislation was also discussed at a hearing of the House Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday, at which Delano Hunter, acting director of the city agency that oversees the site, urged action from Congress to break the “stalemate” that has prevented the city from unlocking the area’s full potential.

The sale of the Commanders from Snyder and the bill’s advance out of committee could mark a fresh start for a site that lawmakers say could one day be a vibrant attraction on the banks of the Anacostia River and a return to a nostalgic past when Washington was a football town.

“I grew up in Washington, D.C. going to RFK stadium, watching the Washington football team in this great place… A place where the rocking and rolling stadium really brought Washington together and united a city like nothing else really did,” Goldman said. “Everyone came to East Capitol Street on Sundays to celebrate the football team. I’m excited at the prospect of bringing the Washington football team back to DC. That is where the team belongs.”

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