No sooner was today's House hearing on D.C.'s marijuana decriminalization bill over than Republican John Fleming (R-LA) told Roll Call that he intends to introduce a disapproval resolution to overturn the legislation. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) reiterated her commitment made at the hearing, where she testified, to defend D.C. home rule and the city's ability to pass marijuana decriminalization legislation, as 18 states have already done without congressional interference. The hearing was held by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee's Subcommittee on Government Operations, chaired by Representative John Mica (R-FL). Fleming is not a member of the full committee or the subcommittee, but sought permission to sit and question witnesses at today's hearing. Norton, a senior member of the full committee, does not sit on the subcommittee, but was also granted permission to sit and question witnesses.
"Representative John Fleming came to today's hearing with a purpose that he lost no time in announcing -- a bill to overturn a local marijuana decriminalization law in a district not his own," said Norton. "Along with the District, Representative Fleming proposes to throw his Republican 10th Amendment principles and the Party's professed principles of local control and federalism under the proverbial bus. He concedes in a statement that he is taking advantage of D.C. as the only place he can interfere with marijuana decriminalization laws among the 18 states and the District that have decriminalized marijuana. I imagine his constituents would rather that their Member of Congress spend his valuable time in Washington attending to their business instead of meddling in the lawful decisions of a district more than 1,000 miles from their own. Many thought that no bill to overturn the District's legislation would be filed, but I am not in the least surprised that the first hearing in decades on an entirely local law would raise the profile of the District's bill and invite interference."
Fleming is in his third term and has introduced only nine bills this Congress. Norton has introduced 57 bills this Congress. This is not Fleming's first attack this Congress on the District's right to self-government. He was an original cosponsor of a bill to permanently prohibit the District from spending its local funds on abortion services for low-income women, and was also an original cosponsor of a bill to ban abortions in the District of Columbia, but in no other jurisdiction, after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Norton said it appears that Fleming is inordinately dependent on District of Columbia bills, given his low production of bills in Congress. Although Members of Congress sometimes try to overturn D.C. laws, they usually do it surreptitiously, instead of using the cumbersome disapproval process during the congressional review period. Congress gave up its power to enact local laws for the District 40 years ago and almost no local laws have ever been overturned, notwithstanding residual authority in Congress.
At the hearing, Republicans, including Fleming, seemed taken aback by the racial disparity in arrests for marijuana possession in D.C., where black and white people use marijuana at comparable rates but 90% of the arrests are of African Americans. Louisiana has similar disparities -- 60.8 % of arrests are of African Americans, while blacks make up 32% of the Louisiana population.
Today's hearing saw an open disagreement among Republicans, which has been apparent on a number of issues this Congress, particularly between Fleming, a physician, and Representative Thomas Massie (R-KY), a libertarian who voted to allow Veterans Administration doctors to talk to patients about medical marijuana in states where it is legal.
Under the Home Rule Act of 1973, District criminal bills, including the marijuana decriminalization bill, take effect after a 60-legislative-day congressional review period unless a resolution of disapproval is enacted during such period. The resolution must be passed by both houses of Congress and signed by the president. There have been only three resolutions of disapproval enacted since 1973, and none have been enacted since 1991. Norton believes she can stop the D.C. marijuana decriminalization bill from being overturned during the 60-day congressional review period or through other legislative vehicles.