The National Capital Planning Commission meeting this afternoon sure was breezy. After a few questions, the body rubber stamped a master plan for the Veterans Affairs hospital at Irving and North Capitol Street, and okayed the closure of streets around the Cohen Companies’ proposed developments at 1333 M Street Southeast (while recommending that the building heights be altered to respect historic views).

One exchange before the main agenda began, though, yielded an interesting tidbit. Commissioner Herbert F. Ames, having just toured the streetcar on display downtown, wanted to know who had the power to change the rules governing overhead wires in the federal city. “There is an awful lot of money proposed to be spent,” said Ames (who, unrelatedly, is a South Carolina realtor and campaign donor Rep. Joe Wilson and Sen. Jim DeMint). “It’s going to be a major bone of contention.”

Turns out that’s a good question: Nobody really knows. Apparently, the NCPC sent a letter last summer to the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel asking whether the District could revise the 1889 federal law under the Home Rule Act, or whether that power was still reserved to Congress.

“They would not answer the question unless we agreed to be bound by the answer,” explained NCPC acting general counsel Peter Coppleman. “We determined that it would be unlikely that we could get this commission to agree to be bound.”

So, we live in ignorance, for fear of having to live with the answer!

(By the way, that’s the Office of Legal Counsel that, during the Bush years, also issued memos supporting the use of torture and expanding executive power. President Obama’s nominee for the seat withdrew herself from consideration last month after a fruitless year-long battle. An ill-starred office indeed.)

Photo from flickr user Portable City