Washington, DC: Where Conservative Congressmen Dump Bad Ideas
“John, I will give you DC abortion. I am not happy about it.”
Those words, uttered by President Barack Obama during a meeting with speaker of the House John Boehner, may have averted a shutdown of the federal government late last week, but they did so at the expense of the 600,000 residents of the district of Columbia.
As part of the deal hatched between Obama and Boehner, a controversial proposal to defund Planned Parenthood’s preventive services was taken off the table in budget negotiations, but what remained was a prohibition on the use of the district’s local funds for abortions.
The DC abortion funding ban itself is not new—it was lifted by Congressional Democrats in 2009, adding the district to the list of just twenty-seven states that permit locally raised funds to be spent on abortion care—but its re-emergence is a stark reminder that district residents are still not treated as equal participants in American democracy.
Because of the district’s long-standing status as something of a federal colony, Congress has always reserved the right to govern over local affairs. Though the district gained an elected mayor and city council in 1973, final approval on all legislative and budgetary matters resides with Congress.
If local legislators pass a law, Congress gets to review it for thirty or sixty days; every annual city budget is similarly sent to the Hill, where members of Congress of either party can tinker as much as they see fit.
And tinker they have, mostly on social issues where they can score easy points with advocacy groups without having to worry about being penalized by their own constituents.
In 1998, district residents overwhelmingly voted for a proposed medical marijuana program, but Congressional opponents prohibited city officials from implementing the law. (The charge was led by Georgia Republican Bob Barr, who in 2007 had a change of heart and became a staunch critic of federal drug policies.) That same year, Congress also stopped the district from using local funds for needle-exchange programs—which are vital in a city with an HIV/AIDS rate rivaling that of some African countries.
Republicans have made it an annual ritual to introduce legislation that would not only gut the district’s existing gun laws but also forbid members of the DC Council from ever imposing new ones. And when same-sex marriage became legal in 2010, conservative Republicans repeatedly threatened to introduce legislation that would force the district to put the issue to a divisive public vote.
The examples are as numerous as they can be comical—in 2005, Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-TX) proposed that a long stretch of 16th Street cutting through the heavily Democratic district be renamed “Ronald Reagan Boulevard” and then-Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) pitched using the city as a “laboratory” for a flat-tax scheme.
From 2002 to 2008, Congress even forbade the district from using its own money to advocate for voting rights, statehood or expanded legislative and budgetary autonomy.
During the recent Democratic majority, those prohibitions on needle-exchange programs, abortion, funding for DC voting rights advocacy, and medical marijuana were lifted, allowing local officials a measure of flexibility in governing according to the needs of residents. Funding to needle-exchange providers resumed, and the long-overdue medical marijuana program began to take shape. (It’s due to kick off this year.) Even marriage equality looked safe.
But the new Republican majority wasted no time in launching a full-fledged assault on local autonomy this year, stripping DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton of her vote on the House floor, reviving a controversial school voucher program and again pushing to ban local funds for abortions and needle-exchange programs.
Members of the Republican Study Committee even proposed cutting $210 million in spending in the district, cuts that would be disastrous for a city that isn’t allowed to impose taxes on money made by non-residents or on lands owned by the federal government. (All told, according to Standard & Poor’s, 70 percent of all money made in DC and 68 percent of the city’s land is untaxable.)
The Republican attacks on the district are part politics and part crass opportunism. Not only is the district one of the most Democratic jurisdictions in the country, but Congressional Republicans and conservative Democrats can take stances on social issues in the district without having to answer to the people that would be most affected by them—the city’s residents.
On the bright side, Republican control and the recent fight over the federal budget might have given the movement for DC voting rights, self-determination and statehood much-needed new life. As the shutdown loomed, over 8,000 people RSVP'd to a Facebook event that threatened to take its garbage to Boehner’s Capitol Hill apartment. (The district’s government was facing closure, and trash pickup, among other basic services, would have been suspended.)
In a sternly worded statement, Mayor Vince Gray said he was “angry and terribly disappointed that the district of Columbia suffered collateral damage amidst partisan bickering.” On Monday, he upped the ante by becoming the second mayor in the city’s history to get arrested during a protest for expanded DC rights. He was joined by forty protesters—including six of the DC Council’s thirteen members—in blocking rush-hour traffic in front of a Senate office building.
Even Norton, herself a longtime advocate of local rights, has stepped up the fight—she recently accused Republicans of killing district residents because of their support of the needle-exchange ban and opined that the city should tell Congress “to go straight to hell.”
It shouldn’t take that, but it will take Obama stepping up to defend the district more aggressively. To date, he’s refused to put the city’s standard “Taxation Without Representation” license plates on his limo—President Clinton had them, President Bush removed them—and has remained generally quiet on issues relating to local autonomy and voting rights.
Obama may not have been happy over the abortion compromise, but neither are the district residents who gave him 93 percent of the city’s vote in 2008. The march towards full equality for district residents won’t be easy, but it can begin when presidents and congressmen stop treating the district as a place to dump bad ideas.