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From Baltimore County, Rep. Harris takes an active role in District of Columbia

David Trumble has never heard of Rep. Andy Harris. But his community has nevertheless felt the influence of the Maryland congressman.

That's because Trumble lives in the District of Columbia, a familiar target for congressional intervention. While the nation's capital is — at its closest — an hour's drive from Harris's mostly rural district, the Baltimore County Republican has become a leading conservative voice in Congress on the District.

Harris, a Johns Hopkins-trained anesthesiologist, has warred with District leaders over marijuana legalization. He has spearheaded an effort to roll back the District’s assisted-suicide law. More recently he attempted to upend a city law dictating which types of wet wipes — as in, moist toilet paper — may be labeled “flushable.”

None of it sits well with Trumble, 66, a Washingtonian for four decades who lives in the city’s H Street Corridor.

"How can he make laws for us?" he asked. "He's not representing us. We didn't vote for him."

The District of Columbia Home Rule Act, signed by President Richard Nixon in 1973, gave Washington an elected mayor for the first time in a century. But that didn’t stop Congress from involving itself in District affairs, from gun regulations to abortions.

Many of those clashes have been fought bitterly year after year.

Harris, a former state lawmaker who was elected to the House in 2010, says he is fulfilling Congress’s constitutional obligation to oversee the District. As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, Harris votes on hundreds of millions of dollars for the city each year. Once the checks are signed, he says, Congress has a responsibility to maintain oversight.

“We are the governing body of the District,” Harris said. “I’m fully comfortable with helping Congress fulfill that mandate.”

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have long had the power to influence District governance, and Congress has the authority to review and, when it wants, quash acts approved by the District Council. That structure was embraced by the Founding Fathers, who created a distinct district for the capital from land in Maryland and Virginia to ensure that the national government would operate free from the influence of any state.

But the results of that system often rub the District’s overwhelmingly Democratic officials as political: Republicans from rural parts of the country establishing policies for a city that are popular mostly with their own conservative constituents back home. Amid a rise in heroin use across the country, for instance, the Republican-led Congress prohibits the District from using federal money for needle exchange programs.

An appropriations bill approved by the House on Thursday, meanwhile, continues a longstanding ban on the District using local taxpayer money to cover abortions through the federal Medicaid program.

It is in that context that Harris — whose congressional district includes Baltimore and Harford counties as well as the Eastern Shore — has emerged as what advocates for D.C. statehood describe as one of the most engaged members on the District of Columbia.

“He seems to spend as much time on the District as I do,” quipped Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the Democrat who serves as the District’s nonvoting representative in Congress.

Harris responds that he’s just doing his job.

“She should read the Constitution,” Harris said.

Harris drew considerable attention to himself in 2014 when he tucked language into federal funding legislation that prohibited the District from spending money to enact a marijuana legalization initiative approved by its voters earlier that year.

Local officials argued that the measure was enacted when the results of the referendum were certified and that Congress arrived with its prohibition too late.

Harris and other Republicans said at the time that Mayor Muriel Bowser could face jail time for implementing the law. She hasn’t.

Congress has continued to write the restriction — now known as the “Harris amendment” — into its spending measures, including the House-passed version of legislation to fund the federal government after December. While possession of recreational marijuana is legal in the District, the federal measure has prevented officials from regulating its sale.

That has made Harris “public enemy No. 1,” said Adam Eidinger, an architect of the initiative legalizing pot here.

But Harris has never shied from the debate over marijuana, which he argues is a dangerous gateway drug. And it hasn’t cost him politically. Last year a former state lawmaker challenged Harris in the Republican primary with a libertarian campaign that focused in part on Harris’s opposition to marijuana.

Harris won the primary with nearly 80 percent of the vote.

Perhaps the most surprising effort Harris led on the District was his move last month to reverse a law approved by the council that requires the manufacturers of wet wipes to meet certain standards before they may label their product as “flushable.”

Supporters of the law said it was a response to sewer clogs caused by wipes that do not easily degrade.

Harris and industry officials saw a de facto ban on the products, and argued it would limit customers’ choice and ultimately exacerbate sewer clogs. And so the congressman proposed an amendment to an appropriations bill in July to repeal the District’s law — but then withdrew it before the legislation made it out of committee.

“The problem is they don’t really define what flushable is,” Harris told his colleagues during a committee meeting over the summer. “If we ban flushable wipes, everybody’s going to flush non-flushable wipes. That’s the real problem.”

Harris said his amendment was aimed at nudging the District to approve clearer regulations so manufacturers would know what was expected of them.

Asked why he took on an issue of seemingly hyper-local concern to the District, Harris said that Kimberly-Clark Corp., one of the nation’s largest manufacturers of the wipes, has a major manufacturing facility in Chester, Pa., about 30 miles from his district.

A spokesman for Kimberly-Clark confirmed that the Texas-based company raised concerns with Harris and other members of Congress when the D.C. law was approved.

“A law limiting consumer access to wipes designed to be flushed will likely worsen the D.C. sewer system’s issues as consumers, accustomed to toileting wipes, migrate to baby wipes and other non-flushable wipes,” spokesman Bob Brand said.

For now, though, Harris’ effort on the wipes is on hold.

The congressman also led a campaign this summer to repeal the District’s assisted-suicide law — weighing into a debate that played out for more than a year and prompted highly emotional responses from both sides. The council voted 11-2 late last year to approve the law.

Bowser signed the measure in December, and the District joined six states that allow terminally ill patients to end their lives. The law permits doctors to prescribe a lethal medication to patients who have less than six months to live.

Harris, a devout Catholic, has questioned the safeguards in the measure, calling the law “really bad policy.” As with other polices, he included language in an appropriations bill this year to prohibit the District from spending any money to implement it.

The fate of the underlying legislation won’t be clear until later this year, underscoring a weakness in using appropriations measures to influence anything. Congressional leaders often ignore policy riders included in appropriations bills if they wind up funding the government through an 11th-hour, bipartisan agreement.

Opponents of the law, including several disability rights groups, say some patients could make the decision in a state of depression or without fully understanding their options. Worse, they fear, some could be coerced into the decision.

“You’re going through the worst that you could in that particular situation,” said J.J. Hanson, president of Patients Rights Action Fund. The advocacy group fights legalization of physician-assisted suicide.

Hanson was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2014. After doctors told him his prognosis was bleak, he said, he considered “ending this now.” Instead, he identified a doctor who performed surgery, and that has allowed him to manage the cancer.

“I could see the danger,” Hanson said. “If I had had those assisted-suicide pills and they were just sitting there, I could have just ended it.”

Those on the other side say such a personal decision should be made by the patient, not Congress.

“I think it’s between the family and person who’s dying and their doctor,” said Jane Wells, a 60-year-old District resident. “If people want this for their loved ones, they should be allowed to have it.”

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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