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Strange bedfellows in House as lawmakers consider DC stadium revamp

A proposal to build a new stadium for the Washington Commanders at the derelict Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium pitted both Republicans and Democrats against their own colleagues.

WASHINGTON (CN) — A bill aimed at revitalizing the site of Washington’s moribund sports stadium rose above congressional partisanship Wednesday morning, as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle disagreed about whether the property should be used to host the capital city’s professional football team.

The bipartisan legislation, introduced in July by Kentucky Republican James Comer, would allow the city government to develop federal land on which the shuttered Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium currently stands. If passed, the measure would alter Washington’s existing lease on the land to permit commercial or residential development. It would also retain the city’s freedom to use the land for a sports venue, such as a stadium.

The bill enjoys support from a cadre of House Democrats including Washington’s shadow Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton.

During a bill markup Wednesday in the House Committee on Oversight, Comer said any development project authorized under his legislation would “revitalize the RFK stadium site, creating new jobs and adding millions of dollars in tax revenue for the district.”

Representative Norton, who has been Washington’s nonvoting House lawmaker since 1996, offered her support, saying that Congress has long authorized similar projects in the city.

The proposed measure comes as Washington is weighing whether to use the land formerly occupied by RFK stadium for a brand-new sports arena that would eventually be used by the Washington Commanders. The NFL team currently plays outside of Washington’s borders at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland.

The prospect of rehoming Washington’s football team was attractive to some lawmakers, including New York Congressman Dan Goldman, who grew up in the nation’s capital. The Democrat recounted “incredible memories” of going to football games at the former RFK stadium.

“I am both excited at the possibility that the Washington football team will return to Washington, where it belongs,” Goldman said, “but also that we can use this space to revitalize an area that is in sore need of it.”

While members of both parties agreed congressional action was needed to revamp the capital city’s moribund stadium site, lawmakers differed Wednesday on whether the government should give its blessing to a new sports venue — a disagreement that on more than one occasion bucked partisanship.

Pennsylvania Republican Scott Perry offered an amendment to Comer’s bill, which he explained would block Washington from using government funds to build a stadium at the RFK site.

“Let me be abundantly clear,” Perry told his colleagues, “I’m not opposed to the development of the site. What I am opposed to is the use of public funds to pay for the relocation or development of a multibillion-dollar sports franchise.”

Perry argued that the Commanders franchise should foot the bill for such construction rather than Washington’s populace, pointing out that the team could opt to abandon the project — or the city — at any time, leaving taxpayers in the lurch.

“I just think that, if somebody’s going to make hundreds of millions or billions in profit from that redevelopment, those folks should take the risk,” Perry contended. “The taxpayer shouldn’t be forced to put their capital at risk for no potential return on that investment.”

Reaching across party lines, Maryland Democrat Jamie Raskin offered a similar perspective, framing it as complicated interplay between Washington’s right to home rule and the federal land leasing policy.

“I’m drawn to the logic of [Perry’s] amendment,” Raskin said. “If we’re going to dispose of federal land to a state, a city or a county … on very favorable terms, then we should not additionally say there can be government financing that goes along with a stadium, if that’s the purpose of it.”

Despite what the congressman framed as his longtime championship of statehood and self-government for Washington, he argued that “there is a movement against any level of government paying for stadiums for multibillion-dollar franchises.”

On the flipside, a bipartisan group of lawmakers argued that the federal government should have no right to dictate land use terms to Washington after a lease agreement is concluded.

Calling on his experience working in local government, Virginia Democrat Gerry Connolly argued that he would “never welcome Congress or any outside body telling us how to manage our affairs, including how we allocate priorities in our budget.”

Connolly, alongside Representative Norton, staked out a position of stark support for Washington home rule.

“We may or may not like decisions made by another jurisdiction,” the lawmaker said. “God knoweth, there are jurisdictions whose decisions I don’t agree with, but they’re elected by their constituents to represent their values.”

Joining his colleagues in opposing Perry’s amendment was Congressman Comer, who chairs the House oversight panel. The Kentucky Republican argued that hamstringing Washington’s government over a sports stadium would serve to hurt the city’s economic development.

“It’s the intention of the bill to give the necessary flexibility to the mayor’s office to work out what is the best blend of development on the Memorial Stadium campus site,” Comer pointed out. The lawmaker acknowledged Perry’s concerns about subsidizing sports franchises but suggested that Congress take broader action on that front rather than “placing a unique prohibition on the district.”

Comer’s words of support are particularly notable because the lawmaker has in recent months led Republican efforts to roll back laws passed by Washington’s municipal council, backing two separate efforts to block city-level criminal justice and policing reform legislation.

The oversight committee chair acknowledged that dichotomy Wednesday.

“We’ve been critical of some of the decisions that the Washington council has made, especially with respect to crime,” Comer told Perry. “But I believe this amendment would hinder D.C. at a time when we need to do everything we can to work with D.C. and create new economic opportunities for the city.”

The oversight committee rejected Perry's amendment on a 13-24 vote. Comer's bill cleared the panel on an overwhelming 31-9 vote. Raskin ultimately voted in favor of the bill.

RFK stadium opened its doors in 1961 and hosted a variety of sporting events, including football, baseball, motorsports and World Cup soccer matches until it closed its doors in 2019. The venue, which is owned under lease by Washington’s municipal events authority, is currently being demolished.

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