Many took note of Mayor Vincent Gray’s outspoken approach during the shutdown, when he did things like crash a Senate presser at the Capitol to demand that federal lawmakers take up the District’s funding bill. Council member David Grosso thinks he didn’t go far enough.
The issue at hand was federal control of the District’s budget. the District of Columbia is the only jurisdiction in the United States whose budget and revenues are controlled by Congress, and as the federal shutdown dragged on, the city was running out of emergency reserves. “It’s a new attitude in D.C.,” Grosso told National Journal at the time. “We’re no longer going to ask for permission. We’re going to stand up for our rights and spend our local money.”
The shutdown is over now and with it, the fight for control of the D.C. budget. But Grosso and his confrontational approach aren’t going away. He already has his eyes on the next D.C. autonomy fight: the freedom for D.C. to pass its own legislation without approval from Congress.
The District is the only place in country where legislation must be sent to Congress for approval before it becomes law, a process that can take weeks. While its legislation is almost always approved without conflict, members of Congress do have the power to put D.C. laws on hold, as was the case with a bill to legalize medical marijuana, which was stalled for years after Congress imposed a rider blocking money to implement the measure.
“My argument would be that we should simply stop sending our bills up there for legislative approval,” said Grosso, an at-large councilman who represents all eight wards in the city. “The mayor should sign them and then we should implement them.” The politics of it is a bit nuanced, he admits, since whether D.C. has the legal authority to do that and whether their laws would have any impact at all without approval from Congress remain outstanding questions.
“That’s a little trickier,” said Grosso, who studied law at Georgetown University. “I haven’t figured out how I’m gonna do that yet. But I’m working on it.”
The backdrop of course is that due to its designation as a federal enclave, D.C. has long been disempowered, with no voting representation in Congress. The shutdown gave District leaders a rare opportunity to broadcast their constituents’ disenfranchisement at the national level. Some, including James Jones, communications director for advocacy organization D.C. Vote, credit Grosso with turning the shutdown into a showdown for the District.
“I think David represents a newer generation of political leaders in the District who are going to be more confrontational with Congress, and we need that,” Jones said. “Instead of trying to play nice all the time, we have to be a little more aggressive, and if there’s one thing David is on issues he cares about, it’s aggressive.”
Grosso isn’t the first politician who’s been willing to break the law and risk arrest for District rights. In 2011 a budget deal hammered out between President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner included funding for a controversial voucher program, despite the city’s wishes. It also banned D.C. from spending its own local tax dollars on abortion services for low-income women.
Mayor Gray and several members of the D.C. Council were arrested at a Capitol Hill protest of the action. But it was a symbolic gesture, meant to illustrate the District’s predicament. Grosso is advocating something else: direct action.
“It’s actually the most direct form of civil disobedience,” Grosso told National Journal at an event hosted by D.C. Vote last week. “Indirect is when you block the streets and say we want our rights. Direct is when you actually do something that moves forward the issue that you care about.”
Grosso was elected to the council in November 2012, after serving as an aide for D.C. council member Sharon Ambrose and later, as a legislative director for the District’s congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton. “The council is fortunate to have David back, this time in its official leadership,” Norton said in a statement to National Journal. “After having served as a staff leader in the council so well that I asked him to become my congressional legislative director. I am not surprised that early on in his tenure, David has become an influential and innovative thinker on the council.”
Norton praised, among other things, Grosso’s “cool idea to rename our football team the Washington Redtails” and sought to dispel any rumors that she is trying to “infiltrate the council” with her former staff members, two of whom now serve on the council. (The other is Kenyan McDuffie.)
“I do not endorse races in D.C.,” Norton said, “but I must say that I appreciate how both David and Kenyan have focused on getting money out of politics, a concern of mine in the Congress.”
Other District advocates offered more cautious praise. D.C. Appleseed’s Walter Smith said he supports Grosso’s new approach “to the extent it captures a new zealousness and assertiveness and a willingness to take strong stands and push the envelope.”
“Where I wonder about it,” he added, “is whether in the long run we can successfully violate federal law and make it stick, whether it’s the right strategy if we in fact have legal arguments in support of what we’re doing.”