Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
October 20, 2014

October 20, 2014

Late-Night Terrorism Drills Test D.C. Officials

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Homeland security officials staged a shooting similar to the 2013 Navy Yard tragedy. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Police in the District of Columbia responded to a staged suicide bombing shortly after 9 p.m. Sunday, on the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center site in Northwest Washington.

“Where’s everybody going? Can you help us?” a woman shrieked from a curb near the scene of the explosion.

The actress whimpered, putting on a dramatic display for observers from the FBI and other government agencies watching one act in the District’s full-scale overnight emergency preparedness drill from a nearby hilltop.

The cop who rescued the actress rushed back up to the doorstep of the brick building, avoiding the body of another faux victim who did not survive the blast. Within minutes, a firetruck pulled up and firefighters unrolled a hose, preparing to decontaminate the area in case the improvised explosive device turned out to be a chemical bomb.

“Anybody who can walk comes this way,” instructed one of the first responders near the fire truck, after getting a rundown on casualties and injuries from an officer. So far, police had found at least seven victims in the staged terror activity, including some amputees.

The dramatic exercise was staged to test the District’s public safety capabilities. The emergency responders and actors from this scene would be followed in the next few hours by the hazardous materials team, bomb squad and other specialized teams who would be reacting to multiple terrorists attacks for the training event.

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October 17, 2014

National Christmas Tree Lighting Lottery Starts

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(CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Decorations might stay off the shelves until after Halloween, but if you want to see the Dec. 4 National Christmas Tree lighting on the White House Ellipse this year, you better get your head wrapped around the holidays at least for this week.

The lottery for tickets to attend the annual event opened Friday and will close on Oct. 20.

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Could Nov. 4 Results Render D.C.’s Budget Autonomy Case Moot?

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Will Gray’s successor make budget autonomy suit moot? (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

More than 40 years after President Richard M. Nixon signed the Home Rule Act, legal experts in the District of Columbia are fighting about what the feds intended.

Federal appeals court judges listened to more than an hour of oral arguments Friday in the case pitting the District’s executive branch against its legislative branch. It’s round two of a legal battle launched in April.

U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Patricia A. Millett pressed a politically potent question for this time of year. Will the entire suit be “moot” after Nov. 4, when the city casts ballots for a new mayor and its first elected attorney general?

If the new administration chooses to comply with the local budget autonomy law signed by Mayor Vincent Gray in February 2013, and approved by 83 percent of voters two months later, there’s “at least a possibility that what we have right now [might] no longer be what the courts call a case or controversy,” said Walter Smith, executive director of DC Appleseed.

“The court could say, ‘Well, the case is over,’ dismiss the appeal and vacate the decision,” Smith said in an interview after the arguments. As the legal architect behind the charter amendment, he supports the D.C. Council’s appeal to require Gray and Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey S. DeWitt to comply with the law.

Budget autonomy referendum backers claim Congress provided a pathway for the District to amend the budget process via its charter. In court documents, lawyers for the D.C. Council cited House staff memos and notes from 1973 conference negotiations with the Senate to discern lawmaker’s intentions. They noted that in 1984, Congress made it easier to amend the charter.

D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan counters that Capitol Hill “put it off limits” for the council to to change its budget process. Nathan insisted the panel go “back to the merits” and uphold U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan’s May 19 ruling that the city does not have the right to spend its local revenues without seeking an annual appropriation from Congress. He wants “common sense” to prevail.

Both sides say they believe the District deserves budget autonomy, but the executive branch agrees with the House GOP and the Government Accountability Office: The city can’t cut its own purse strings.

Democratic mayoral nominee Muriel Bowser and independent candidate David Catania are both members of the D.C. Council, which voted unanimously to adopt the local budget autonomy law. Bowser, Catania and Carol Schwartz — another independent challenger for mayor and a former councilmember — have all expressed support for budget autonomy.

Paul Zukerberg, an attorney general contender, attended Friday’s arguments as a supporter of the D.C. Council. He told CQ Roll Call that, if elected, he would enforce the local budget autonomy law, but that might not be the end of the legal battle.

“There’s also a provision that would require the appointment of independent counsel for Jeff DeWitt or the mayor if they had different opinions,” Zukerberg said. “The CFO is independent so if he persisted there would still be an attorney representing him, so it wouldn’t necessarily mean the case is over.”

This hypothetical scenario is something Smith differed on. He said the CFO is still a member of the executive branch. A new attorney general’s opinion may be “binding on every District of Columbia official,” Smith said.

The appeals court has no set timeline to decide the appeal, but advocates of budget autonomy hope for a fresh start after Nov. 4.

DC Vote spokesman James Jones said he looks forward to having an elected attorney general who balances “the responsibility to uphold the law” with “viewing the people of the District as a client.”

Related:

D.C. Budget Autonomy Ruling Is Just the Beginning of Local Control Fight

D.C. Budget Autonomy Amicus Brief Takes Slap at Congress

D.C. Council to Mayor: See You in Court

D.C. Chief Financial Officer Warns Local Budget Autonomy Law Puts Home Rule at Risk

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Grazing Wars: Grass March Cowboys Ride to Capitol Hill

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Martin poses by his horse trailer parked southwest of the Capitol. (Hannah Hess/CQ Roll Call)

A Prius driver pulled up next to the horse trailer parked on Maryland Avenue midday Thursday, a block southwest of the Capitol, and asked Nevada ranch hand George Martin what issue brought him to Washington.

“Regulation without representation,” responded Martin, 69, who was keeping a watchful eye on a dozen horses and three of his great-granddaughters, while the rest of the crew that rode with him for nearly 2,800 miles paid a visit to the Hill. Capitol Police rules ban the Grass March Cowboy Express from saddling up on Capitol grounds, so the two horse trailers and a chuck wagon stayed parked outside the National Museum of the American Indian.

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October 16, 2014

Official Confirms 12 Ebola Investigations in D.C.

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CDC Director Tom Frieden appears during a House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing on Thursday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

At least a dozen Ebola cases have been investigated in the District of Columbia, the director of the city’s Department of Health disclosed Thursday, but no one has tested positive for the disease.

Dr. Joxel Garcia told reporters officials were able to rule out the disease after isolating the patients, and said no one is currently in isolation. Unlike a widely-reported Oct. 3 scare at Howard University Hospital, most of these cases flew under the radar of local news media. Without going into specifics, Garcia said things should have been handled better.

“I think that we have to start learning if a patient is at risk or not before we start telling people that we have a patient or not,” Garcia said. “The number one thing is to protect the people in the District.” Full story

Harvard Welcomes New Members With 4-Day Orientation

It isn’t easy for new members of Congress to sit down and talk openly with lawmakers from the other side of the aisle — cameras are ever-present, reporters are never far away and there isn’t exactly a lot of love between the two major parties.

Enter the Harvard Institute of Politics. The Boston-based institute holds a conference every two years to give new members a chance to get to know each other away from the media glare on Capitol Hill, before they officially take office.

“When you get a … bipartisan group of members in a room without the spotlight of the world on them and they’re just sitting around talking to each other, it’s amazing to hear the conversations you hear Republicans having with Democrats,” said Christian Flynn, the Harvard IOP director of Conferences and Special Projects.

In 1972, when the conference started, there were just four members who attended. This year there are four organizations — the Brookings Institution, the American Enterprise Institute, the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Congressional Institute — are partnering with Harvard to orientate the members.

In 1972, those four members stayed at Harvard for a whole month. These days, the most you can expect is the four days.

“Can you imagine ever having a new member of Congress go anywhere for a month, let alone come to Harvard?” Flynn asked.

New members get a crash course in contemporary issues and what they may need to worry about in the future. The conference sessions are led by academics, policy analysts, practitioners and current and former members of Congress, according to a press release. Topics covered include the federal budget, the global economy, terrorism and navigating the legislative process.

How to survive the “hustle and bustle” of Washington is covered, too. It’s a college orientation on steroids for the nation’s freshman lawmakers.

“Some of it ends up being, ‘Oh, I need a roommate, do you need a roommate?’” Flynn said.

Family members can attend, Flynn said, but there’s a rule on plus ones: “No staffers allowed.”

The Harvard Institute of Politics was founded in 1966 as a memorial to President John F. Kennedy. The institute is paid for by a Harvard endowment — the partners don’t contribute cash — and all new members, including recent special-election winners, are invited. The program takes place from Dec. 2 through Dec. 5, and kicks of with a dinner.

Correction 5:53 p.m.

An earlier version of this post misstated how many organizations are partnering with Harvard for the orientation. This post has also been updated to reflect the uncertainty of how many members will attend.

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Oops: Upside-Down Flag Mars D.C. Voter Guide

upsidedownflag 309x330 Oops: Upside Down Flag Mars D.C. Voter Guide

Oops! (via @ericfidler)

District of Columbia residents might be confused to see an upside-down D.C. flag on the cover of the official voter guide being shipped out in advance of the Nov. 4 elections.

The D.C. Board of Elections is playing off the image as the only error in an otherwise correct overview of where and when voters should cast ballots for mayor, city council seats and the District’s non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives.

“Can you figure out what’s wrong?” joked a spokeswoman for the board, which serves more than 400,000 registered voters in the District. In a phone interview with CQ Roll Call on Thursday morning, the spokeswoman said the agency was working on posting a note on its website that would tell voters: “Hint: it’s not the content.”

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Watchdogs Want Stronger Congressional Ethics Office

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Boehner and Pelosi both have said that the Office of Congressional Ethics is likely to stay. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Despite its small staff of nine and a slim operating budget of about $1.5 million, the Office of Congressional Ethics has managed to achieve tangible victories in the House, according to sources once skeptical the agency could accomplish its mission.

Before its creation, the House Ethics Committee managed allegations of improper conduct by members and staff almost entirely on its own. In the first decade of the Ethics panel’s existence, only 10 disciplinary actions were issued. Half occurred from 2006 to 2008, during the time when a scandal surrounding notorious ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff led to nearly two dozen convictions or guilty pleas.

Between OCE’s formation in 2009 and 2014, the House Ethics Committee issued 20 disciplinary actions with the help of the agency’s investigations.

That success is outlined in Public Citizen’s report titled, “The Case for Independent Ethics Agencies.” It’s the product of an Ethics Working Group that included the Campaign Legal Center, congressional scholars Norman Ornstein, Thomas Mann and James Thurber, and groups including Common Cause and the National Taxpayers Union.

To the relief of those advocates, OCE is likely here to stay.

Full story

By Hannah Hess Posted at 5 a.m.
Ethics

October 15, 2014

Obamacare Lawsuit Challenges Congress’ ‘Small Business’ Status

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DC Health Link enrollment under attack. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The conservative group Judicial Watch filed a lawsuit Wednesday alleging that members of Congress and congressional staffers who enrolled in health care via the D.C. small business exchange did so illegally.

At a press conference at the National Press Club Wednesday, Judicial Watch claimed the House and Senate should not have been classified as small businesses in the health care exchange. The group said the classification violated D.C. law, which characterizes small businesses as those with fewer than 50 employees.

Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton pointed to documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, showing House and Senate applications to the D.C. Exchange Authority categorized the institutions as small businesses with 45 employees.

“The documents we obtained from D.C. Health Exchange show that every member of Congress who has enrolled in Obamacare has obtained their insurance coverage — and any taxpayer subsidies — through fraud,” Fitton said Wednesday.

When asked for a comment on the lawsuit’s charges, a spokesperson for the D.C. Health Benefit Exchange Authority said, “We cannot comment on pending litigation.” Full story

Capitol Police Replenish Their Ranks After Hiring Freeze

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Sogoyou, a U.S. Capitol Police recruit, works out during a training session at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Cheltenham, Md. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

CHELTENHAM, Md. — Forearms pressed into the black asphalt, the Capitol Police’s 179th class of recruits shook and dripped with sweat in their third minute of planks. It was near 10 a.m. on an 80-degree morning in mid-September, and since 7 a.m. they had been performing squats, crunches and a particularly grueling training drill requiring them to drag a 165 pound dummy 40 feet.

“Is this what you want to do for a career?” yelled a trainer walking through the rows, examining their form. “If it is, you’ve got to reach down and pull yourself up by the bootstraps.”

Actually, the 23 men and two women in their fourth of seven days at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center were wearing tennis shoes and department-issued navy blue T-shirts and mesh shorts. These recruits, among the 110 selected this year from a pool of 7,000 applicants, were drawn to a Capitol Police career for its prestige, exciting assignments and the benefits of a federal job with a starting salary of more than $56,000. But the message was clear. Full story

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