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House passes RFK stadium site bill, boosting dreams of wooing Commanders back to DC

Advocates see it as a first step toward redeveloping the site

Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium is seen in 2013.
Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium is seen in 2013. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The House voted Wednesday night in favor of a plan to transfer control of the RFK stadium campus to D.C., a step cheered by those who hope to one day bring the Washington Commanders back within city limits.

The bill would allow the city to transform the roughly 174-acre campus — which currently consists mostly of parking lots, sports fields and the decaying stadium — from “acres of asphalt” into a vibrant commercial and community space, said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., who championed the proposal.

“Absent congressional action, this land in our nation’s capital will remain unused, with ongoing maintenance costs and environmental liability remaining the full responsibility of the National Park Service — an ongoing burden for the American taxpayer,” Kentucky Republican Rep. James Comer, the bill’s lead sponsor, said from the House floor Wednesday. “This economic development will help revitalize the RFK stadium campus, creating new jobs and tax revenue for district residents.”

The bill, which would transfer control of the stadium campus from the Department of the Interior to D.C. at no cost for 99 years, could give the District a competitive edge over its neighbors in Maryland and Virginia in a bidding war for the Commanders. It comes in the wake of a recently announced deal that could move the Wizards and Capitals from downtown D.C. to Virginia, increasing pressure on local leaders to bring the NFL team back to the city.

The city currently leases the RFK site from the federal government, but the terms of the deal allow only recreational, stadium and open space uses on the site through 2038. The new agreement would also allow commercial and residential projects, a key incentive for would-be developers.

“It’ll have housing on it, and that’s what we most need. So it’s a great victory for our city,” Norton said after the vote.

The final tally on the floor Wednesday night was 348-55. Lawmakers in Maryland, where the Commanders now play, came out in opposition to the plan, as The Washington Post first reported. Democratic Reps. Glenn F. Ivey, Kweisi Mfume, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, John Sarbanes and David Trone all voted no. Rep. Jamie Raskin did not vote.

“We want a level playing field to compete for the Commanders. FedEx Field is in my district and we want to be able to see if we can keep them there,” Ivey said in an interview ahead of the vote, referring to the Commanders’ home field, which is located in Prince George’s County. Ivey said the stadium had been a boon to the local economy, though FedEx on Wednesday announced plans to end its naming-rights deal two years early. 

“Those come and go … so I’m not so much worried about that,” Ivey said. “Those are important and helpful to have, but there are bigger fish to fry. Where the stadium is going to be and the development plan around it, from my perspective, are the key points here.”

Meanwhile, Andy Harris, Maryland’s lone Republican representative in Congress, questioned the financial wisdom of the deal.

“With a $2 trillion federal deficit and $34 trillion federal debt, we should be selling this property instead of giving it away,” Harris said in a statement.

But the bill prevailed despite the concerns of the Maryland delegation. It passed under suspension of the rules, a tactic usually reserved for uncontroversial legislation. Votes placed on what’s informally known as the “suspension calendar” require a two-thirds majority vote in the House. 

Before it can become law, it still must pass the Senate, where it faces an uncertain fate. And asked Wednesday whether the administration supported the bill, President Joe Biden’s Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters she didn’t have anything to share.

Democrats and Republicans have squabbled for much of the 118th Congress over what role the federal government should play in governing D.C. Republicans on the House Oversight and Accountability Committee, which Comer chairs, rankled Democrats on the panel last year when they voted to overturn local bills aimed at increasing police accountability and revising the city’s criminal code. The crime bill was ultimately quashed with support of Democrats in the House and Senate. Biden declined to overrule the congressional repeal, which was the first of its kind in decades.

But on the RFK stadium issue, regular political adversaries — like Comer and Norton — were in agreement. The bill advanced out of both Comer’s committee and the House Natural Resources Committee with bipartisan support. 

“As a former football player at the University of Arkansas, I know the powerful ways that sports can bring communities and even states together,” Arkansas Republican Rep. Bruce Westerman, who chairs the Natural Resources Committee, said on the House floor. “The current RFK Memorial Stadium, located just down the road from the Capitol, has a long and complex history, but is now decrepit and falling apart. The legislation before us today will allow D.C. to mark the end of decades of legal limbo and start the age of economic revitalization.”

Even if the bill passes both chambers, the Commanders’ return to D.C. is far from guaranteed. Though it clears a path for a new stadium, it doesn’t mandate one be built. That decision will ultimately rest with local officials.

If a stadium is built, Josh Harris, the billionaire owner of the Commanders and other professional sports organizations, who purchased the team for more than $6 billion in 2023, will decide whether to relocate the team.

For more than two decades prior to Harris’ record-setting purchase, the team had been under control of owner Daniel Snyder, whose alleged sexual misconduct and financial impropriety led to a congressional investigation and a hefty fine from the league.

Located on the banks of the Anacostia River in Southeast D.C., RFK stadium has sat mostly empty in recent years, since the Major League Soccer team D.C. United relocated to Audi Field, and an abatement and demolition project is underway.

The legislation would require the protection of wetlands near the stadium. It also stipulates that D.C. would be responsible for any administrative costs related to the transfer. It would prohibit federal funds from being used for any stadium development project and bar members of Congress, D.C. officials or federal government officials from benefiting from any future development on the site.

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