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Saturday, March 24, 2007

Thing 15: Lobby

I exit the Capitol South metro every morning, along with Americans from all over the country who have come to the Hill to explain their cause to their Member of Congress. Every interest group and association imaginable organizes a "Hill Day," designed to sit constituents down with their elected Representative and tell their story, pleading their case for legislation that will make their life better. The other day, a group of a dozen blind people were leaving the metro and heading to the Congressional office buildings. The day before it was some global-warming-doesn't-exist folks. Save Darfur, save organized labor, save social security, save small businesses, save the planet -- they all have their day on the Hill.

And yesterday, it was me.

This is not a political blog, but very briefly I will explain that circumstances in Congress on Thursday managed to outrage me so much that I felt compelled Friday morning to storm the House Office Buildings and give someone a piece of my mind. I was angry because District residents were getting close to having a voting Member in Congress -- finally, just a little representation for matters of taxation. A Republican Congressman managed to block the vote on a procedural technicality. He asked for a "motion to recommit," which sends a bill back to committee, in order to attach an amendment that would repeal DC's handgun ban. Conservative Democrats (the "Blue Dogs") were in a bind because they can't be seen as "pro-gun control" in their home districts, and the bill -- which had widely been predicted to sail through -- was frozen in place. The leadership remains unsure of exactly what to do next.

I was livid. It felt to me like Congress was saying "either you can have a vote and your streets won't be safe OR you can stay safe and voiceless." I checked in with DCist, who had opened up an all out assault on Rep. Boustany's office. The Congressman had been attributed (falsely, it turned out) with saying that DC is "the only city . . . that every Senator and every Member of Congress has a vested interest in seeing that it works properly, that water works, sewer works." Boustany has adopted us, DCist gleefully proclaimed. Call his office for constituent services! I did one better. I did what people travel thousands of miles to DC to do: have a constituent meeting.

I walked over the the Longworth building, found Boustany's office (those House office buildings are mazes!) and asked to meet with the person on staff who handles voting rights. I was polite, good-natured and kept my ire buried because I know that the surest way to get dismissed is to be an angry or combative constituent. The staff assistant went back into the office to see who might be willing to speak to me and came back out assuring me that the staffer on this issue was busy at the moment, but to please be in touch and he would be happy to meet with me.

Next stop was my actual Congressional Rep. -- Eleanor Holmes Norton's office. Of course, she can't vote on any legislation, which is the problem in the first place. I asked her front office staff where I should go and who I should try to meet with. They were thrilled and suggested I try to see Rep. Lamar Smith, who put forth the motion to recommit in the first place. They also steered me towards Rep. Souder, who has made a hobby of attempting to repeal DC's ban on handguns. I ran around the Rayburn and Longworth buildings and requested meetings with all the relevant people. None of them could meet with me, but both offices said I was free to contact the staffer and request a meeting in person.

Tired from the running and the righteous indignation, I returned to work to email the staffers, and maybe even do a little of that for which I actually get paid to do.

A staffer from the Judiciary Committee, working under the supervision of Rep. Smith, called me back about a half hour later. I asked him why his boss was trying to confuse Congressional representation with gun control. He suggested that perhaps the best way for the District to gain full Congressional representation was to cede the land back to Maryland. That way, he explained, we'd get a Congress person and two Senators. It is hard to argue with an insane though technically correct idea, so I thanked him for taking the time to actually call me back and went back to my work.

In the early afternoon, Boustany's staffer emailed me back. He apologized that he was unavailable earlier that morning, and would I mind coming back that afternoon to meet with him? He could fit me in at 4:00.

Shortly before 4:00, I headed back to Longworth for my "constituent" meeting. Of course, I wasn't a constituent, so I'm guessing the meeting had little or no impact. Most likely this kindly staffer dismissed everything I had to say just as soon as I left. He explained to me that he felt the bill in question was unconstitutional. I pleaded with him to let the courts decide on constitutional issues and in the meantime the reality is that people live here and we are real and we pay taxes and we're sick and tired of being voiceless. He was really nice and polite, and I left with a feeling of what it might actually be like to lobby my Representative. It felt pretty good. It makes me want my own even more.

Allow me just a moment of sentimentality -- I can't imagine any other country in the world where I could get mad at the government and just walk into their offices and plead my case. It makes me proud of my city and my country that the blind, the anti-environment, the pro-medicare and any other group in the country can speak freely about how they want to be represented in Congress. Even one pissed off girl without a Representative and with a slow morning at work can make a little bit of noise, and maybe have just a bit of influence.

Update: For more about the mix up with Boustany, read this story in the Washington Post. My comment on DCist about my constituent meeting is actually quoted!


David M said...

Why is ceding back to Maryland such an insane idea? Arlington did it, I guess they're all insane.

We'd have Senators and probably 2 Representatives depending on how the Districts are drawn up.

We'd get economy of scale that is afforded to State Government.

Really convince me why this would be a bad thing and just not some individuals who are power hungry and looking to satisfy there own egotistic personalities.

I see 2 solutions here, cede back to Maryland or make DC a true territory where we are not charge federal taxes. 2 Senators and a Representative in the House is a pipe dream.