First Legislative Meeting of the New Year is a High Point for Fans of Council Procedural Details


With the its final Legislative Meeting of 2015 just 21 days behind us, and the holidays having passed in the interim, it was not surprising that the Council’s first Legislative Meeting of 2016 had a comparatively light agenda.

But what the meeting lacked in content, it more than made up for with procedural complexity.

A Deep Dive into Council Procedure

Most Council meetings can be understood based simply on the tenets of our Council 101 series. Today’s meeting required a Council PhD. We will do our best to explain it clearly here.

At issue was the legislation passed by the Council coupled with the public’s approval of Initiative 71 in November of 2014, with a 65% affirmative vote. These actions, in broad terms, decriminalized the use of marijuana in private homes. In March of 2015, the 11-member (with two vacancies) Council unanimously passed an additional bill that explained that the continued ban on marijuana use in public places included such use in potential private marijuana clubs.

Because of the arcane and unfair requirement that all District laws must “lay over” for potential disapproval by Congress prior to actually becoming District law, it can take a long time for our legislation to finally go into permanent effect. A workaround was developed early in the Home Rule era that allows for certain laws to become immediately but temporarily effective through passage of what is known as Emergency Legislation and Temporary Legislation.

Neither of these categories of legislation require committee assignments or hearings. Emergency Legislation is in effect for up to 90 days and requires a single Council vote, and Temporary Legislation is in effect for up to 225 days and requires two Council votes and Congressional review.

What both require is passage by a supermajority of the Council of an emergency declaration. Instead of the simple majority of seven members that is normally necessary, nine of the thirteen Councilmembers must support the emergency declaration (i.e. the expression of why the matter needs to be acted upon as an emergency). It was the 225-day Temporary Legislation cutoff, and the question of whether the nine-member supermajority could be achieved, that hung up today’s proceedings.

That Procedure at Work: Today’s Marijuana Vote

The previous temporary bill regarding private marijuana clubs was set to expire next week, on January 15. Although the permanent version of the legislation is scheduled for a committee vote early next week, it requires two votes by the full Council, mayoral action, and a Congressional layover prior to becoming effective. This obviously could not happen prior to the expiration of the previous legislation, so therefore a second emergency and temporary version of the legislation was introduced.

When the time came to vote on the emergency legislation, it became clear that since the March 2015 unanimous approval of the temporary legislation, some Councilmembers’ views had changed and could possibly tilt the balance on the topic. Indeed, in the end, while there were seven votes in support of the emergency legislation continuing the private marijuana club ban, that fell two votes short of the needed nine. The result of that vote, if it stood, would have been the expiration of the prior temporary legislation clarifying that private marijuana clubs are illegal. The resulting ambiguity would have led many to argue they were therefore legal.

Just prior to the end of the meeting, a motion to reconsider (the Council’s version of a do-over) was introduced in regards to the marijuana measure. Councilmembers expressed discomfort with the lack of a regulatory framework that would exist between when the prior legislation expired, and new legislation could be passed. Two votes changed, and instead of failing to achieve a supermajority with a 7-6 vote, the legislation passed 9-4. As a result, the current legislation can remain in effect for 90 more days, or 225 if the Council votes a second time to approve the temporary legislation. In the background, of course, the ongoing efforts to pass permanent legislation will continue.

Other Council Action Today

In other action today, the Council approved emergency legislation providing financial incentives to residents or businesses for the purchase of private security cameras. The Council approved $500K for this program in late 2015.

New legislation introduced today included:

  • Further protection for pregnant workers
  • A ban on gas-powered leaf blowers, effective in 2022
  • Restrictions on off-year political action committee (PAC) and independent expenditures, and increased reporting requirements
  • A required living wage for workers on projects funded through future government subsidies or assistance

For a full list of action taken at today’s meeting, click here.