In a little-noticed defeat for District home rule, Congress passed a bill on Monday rejecting the District’s attempts to assert more control over the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority. Both houses approved the measure by unanimous consent. The bill awaits President George W. Bush‘s signature.
“I’ve been on the council 10 years, and I know of no other example that is more blatant of both houses of Congress dismissing the people of the District of Columbia,” said Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, whose public works and environment committee has oversight of WASA.
LL has pretty much been the only reporter in town following this District-suburban squabble, which has roots going back years, to when then-Mayor Marion Barry raided the WASA budget when it was part of District government to make ends meet citywide. In the aftermath, WASA because a quasi-independent authority, governed by a board that includes members from suburban jurisdictions. (WASA provides water service to the District only, but it does treat sewage from the suburbs.) In recent months, attempts by Graham, with the support of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, to bring the agency under closer District control have generated suburban ire and threats of congressional intervention. (For more background, check out LL’s column on the matter from earlier this year.)
The bill, sponsored by Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen and co-sponsored by Virginia Rep. Tom Davis, has two parts: One makes it perfectly clear that financial oversight of WASA lies with its interjurisdictional board, rather than with the District’s chief financial officer, as Graham and Fenty have asserted. The other part strips out a D.C.-resident hiring preference for the agency (which employs mostly Marylanders) set out in a bill pushed by At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz last fall.
The interesting twist with this is that Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s congressional delegate, chose to support Van Hollen and Davis on this bill. Usually, it’s Norton who’s behind the scenes trying to make these things go away. Not this time, she told LL back in April: WASA isn’t a true District agency, she said, and therefore has to learn to get along with the burbs.
The writing’s been on the wall for months: After an April 15 House hearing on WASA, City Administrator Dan Tangherlini said that he and the mayor would “prefer that changes come through the D.C. Council rather than Congress.” Graham, for his part, says he preferred not to do the suburbs’ dirty work for them and refused to pass any changes through the council. Despite Tangherlini’s earlier comments, the mayor’s office, Graham says, “didn’t make much of point of it one way or another” as to how the changes would be made.
Fenty included language stripping out the job preference in his budget proposal this spring; the council removed that language during the budget process.
Schwartz also expressed dismay at the bill, through a press release distributed by the D.C. Republican Committee that slammed Van Hollen for his “selfishness.”
Regarding the hiring preference, she said, “All D.C. was attempting to do was to add some fairness by allowing its residents…an opportunity to have a few preference points when it comes to hiring when there are two equally qualified applicants. It did not require that D.C. residents be hired but, basically in case of a tie, residency would be the tiebreaker. Since D.C.’s unemployment rate is double that of the region, what would have been so wrong with giving D.C. residents a fair shake?”
Graham says the bill was an undeniable diss to the District: “I respect [Congress’] role. I don’t think they respect our role—-particularly in the way this was passed”—-without debate or even a committee referral in the Senate—-“which was disappointing to say the least.”
A better target for congressional scrutiny, Graham suggests, would be the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, a body recently rocked by its own jurisdictional disputes, as detailed in a Washington Post story yesterday.
Graham also cited reports of rising water bills as further evidence that Congress needs to butt out: “That’s not falling on Congressman Van Hollen. [Maryland Sen.] Barbara Mikulski isn’t paying that bill. That’s falling on the ratepayers of the District of Columbia.”
In a statement, Van Hollen said that the bill “is essential to restoring the independence and financial integrity” of the agency. “WASA must serve the needs of the entire region and not become the puppet of one jurisdiction alone,” he said.