Staff Editorial: Congress shouldn’t wipe out D.C. ‘flushable’ law

The D.C. Water and Sewer Authority blames disposable wipes for clogging pipes and filtration equipment. (photo courtesy of DC Water)

It’s bad enough when a member of Congress tries to meddle in the District’s local governance to advance an ideological agenda.

Now, we face the prospect of an even more dispiriting form of congressional interference. This time, Congress would be responding to direct pressure from an industry dominated by multinational corporations. At issue: the marketing claims of wet wipes.

Last year, the D.C. Council passed a law that explicitly defines “flushable” products as dissolving in water, and banning noncompliant wipes from using the term. The D.C. Water and Sewer Authority blames these wipes for clogging pipes and filtration equipment, even though the flushable label gives confidence even to conscientious residents that they’re doing no harm.

The Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry argues that concerns are overstated and their products cause little harm, but we’re more inclined to trust DC Water on that point. We also read with amusement that Ward 3 Council member Mary Cheh dispatched an industry lobbyist last year by leaving a “flushable” wipe to soak in water overnight — and seeing no deterioration. “He even poked it around with his pen,” she told The Washington Post. “I never heard from him again.”

Meanwhile, other critics worry that companies will simply stop selling their wipes in D.C. rather than creating special packaging without “flushable” promises. Still others say that government should stay out of the bathroom. But the alternative doesn’t seem appropriate: allowing companies to market their products as safe to flush if the claim is untrue. The law does not target users of the wipes, just the companies that sell them.

We recognize that the toilet-based topic of this dispute is almost comical, tailor-made for pithy punchlines. But the fact that Congress might bow to Kimberly-Clark and other industry giants to block the D.C. government from enacting local laws is no laughing matter. It’s an ugly example of an even more disgusting trend.

Congress is empowered to directly invalidate D.C. laws in various ways due to the District’s unique status, and members have repeatedly done so. But there is no basis for interfering with this local law — or any other that doesn’t affect the District’s ability to serve as the seat of government.

We hope that Congress rejects calls to meddle with the D.C. wipes law — or, at the very least, establishes nationwide rules rather than singling out the District. Furthermore, we hope that the ongoing efforts for D.C. statehood will someday put the District on equal footing with the 50 states, so our local laws won’t be uniquely controlled by out-of-state lawmakers.