Policy

D.C. Law Banning Wet Wipes Could Clog Appropriations

Fatbergs: An amalgamation of sewer waste made worse by pre-moistened wipes

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, seen here in 2016, joined other D.C. politicians at a news conference on Monday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

By KELLIE MEJDRICH and DOUG SWORD

District of Columbia leaders on Monday warned Congress to stay out of local issues and keep policy riders aimed at D.C. laws away from spending bills, a battle the District fights annually.

High on their list this year? Maintaining a D.C. law combating what are known as fatbergs — an amalgamation of sewer waste that’s been made worse by pre-moistened wet wipes that have gained popularity in place of the plain paper stuff.

Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., has threatened to overturn a D.C. law controlling use of the wipes by inserting language in a spending bill, and it’s one of many legislative attempts that D.C. politicians are watching as appropriations heats up. The law, to take effect in 2018, would ban certain wipes unless manufacturers can prove the wipes are flushable and won’t damage pipes.

“Wet wipes in the District. I never believed I’d have to talk about wet wipes standing at a podium in the Congress of the United States,” D.C. Democratic Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton said at a press conference.

Cynthia Finley, director of regulatory affairs for the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, at the press conference defended the “common sense wipes law.”

Finley said of the wipes: “They form massive fatbergs that cause problems and sewage overflows.” She brought pictures of the lumpy, white masses.

Norton suggested the photos of the fatbergs should be sent to members of Congress as a means of persuasion.

Ironically, lawmakers are fighting for control over what goes in D.C. sewers through a spending bill that currently contains zero dollars for the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, despite sending the agency $14 million in fiscal 2017.

An aide to D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said the District is talking to the Senate regarding the sewer system appropriation for its version of the the fiscal 2018 Financial Services spending bill, which funds the District.

When asked why funding for D.C. water and sewer programs was not included in the House measure, a GOP House Appropriations aide told CQ Roll Call on background that other programs funded within the bill are a higher priority.

Because the funding is not included, there’s no Harris rider in the bill, either, regarding wet wipes. But D.C. leaders fear it may be included in appropriations legislation later this year.

Reduced funding

The draft Financial Services bill released last week included an 8 percent cut in federal payments to D.C., dropping from the fiscal 2017 enacted level of $756 million to a proposed $696 million for fiscal 2018.

But $21.9 million of that cut is in the federal payment to the District for emergency planning and security costs, which ballooned in fiscal 2017 because of security costs for the inauguration, but returns to a fiscal 2016 level in the House draft. Without that payment, the overall reduction to D.C. is 5 percent.

Last week, Georgia GOP Rep. Tom Graves, chairman of the House Financial Services Appropriations Subcommittee, described most of the cuts in the draft bill as due to the mathematics of a budget with overall cuts of 6 percent. The $20.2 billion Financial Services bill adopted by the subcommittee includes $1.28 billion in cuts compared to fiscal 2017.

D.C. cuts were pointed to by Graves in his opening statement at a subcommittee markup of the measure on June 29.

Graves touted them, saying: “Cutting spending by $1.3 billion overall — that’s that 6 percent cut I referred to, which eliminates at least six programs and maintains a lot of pro-life policies that are important.”

Other D.C. provisions include:

  • A 25 percent cut from $40 million to $30 million in the federal payment for resident tuition support.
  • A $9.2 million, or 3 percent, cut to the federal payment to the D.C. Courts.

Local control

The $14 million reduction for D.C. water and sewers could be restored in the Senate. Jim Dyer, a former chief of staff for Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee and a principal at the Podesta Group, speculated the appropriation could become part of the negotiation process later.

The last $14 million payment, according to the Senate’s fiscal 2017 committee report, is part of a $2.6 billion, 20-year sewer improvement project designed to cut sewer overflows that dump into the Potomac River during rainstorms.

D.C.’s local politics often encroach into the Capitol as local leaders’ efforts to decriminalize marijuana, push for statehood and obtain tougher gun laws gain local support but rile representatives of other states and districts.

Those issues are in addition to Congress using District laws as a way to make a point on issues such as medical aid in dying for terminally ill patients, abortion, and, in this year’s case, the flushing of wet wipes.

Bowser said such riders “don’t do anything to make D.C. better.”

“Instead, they are designed to influence the choices of Washingtonians and to question the ability of the legislature to pass the laws that our city needs,” she said.

Said Dyer: “You think of all the things we have to do and we’re sitting here wondering about D.C. sewers and what’s in them. It seems like we have too much time on our hands.”

The Financial Services bill will be marked up by the House Appropriations Committee on Thursday.

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