D.C. Self-Government: Under Attack from Republicans By: Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton
Americans must be puzzled as they see the residents of the nation’s capital embarking on a new phase of an old struggle to preserve the right to local self-government a battle they won almost 40 years ago. No, this is not the storied fight for the voting rights and statehood that District of Columbia residents deserve. Unfortunately, today the District is forced to fight simply to maintain the local rights that are unquestioned everywhere in the United States except in the nation’s capital.
After Republicans took control of the House in January, their attacks on the city’s government became so fierce that the mayor and members of the city council were arrested for sitting down in the street in front of the Senate in an act of civil disobedience. The world, which was focused on people in the streets of the Middle East demanding freedom, was riveted by civil disobedience in the nation’s capital that included high officials of a local government. The sit-down occurred after the city was caught in a federal government dispute about cuts in the federal budget and barely avoided being shut down although the city’s local funds were no part of that fight. Congress still holds on to the antiquated practice of approving the city’s locally raised budget, and House Republicans had repeatedly refused my amendments to let the District keep spending its own local funds in order to avoid a local shutdown in the event of a federal shutdown.
House Republicans have long rationalized such irrational treatment of the District, but holding the District hostage in a federal shutdown fight was a new nadir. Republicans finally succeeded in getting hefty budget cuts in the 2011 appropriations bill, but still refused to seal the deal until their demands to take some of the District’s home-rule rights were met. They insisted on a rider prohibiting the city from using its local funds for abortion services for low-income women, and they imposed private school vouchers on the city, an unwanted pet project of Speaker John Boehner. The bold, autocratic insistence on these anti-home rule provisions, as well as the near shutdown of the city government, led to an equally bold response from the city.
Only the most provocative and abusive actions could have led to the mayor of a great city and other elected officials being escorted away in handcuffs. House Republicans have devoted their first months in power to slicing away the District’s home rule. They took control of the House on the promise of jobs, but have yet to introduce a jobs bill. From the first day of the 112th Congress, the Republican majority has been preoccupied with the internal affairs of a city whose local government, like many other jurisdictions, differs with them on some local issues.
With heartbreaking audacity, House Republicans began this process by withdrawing the District’s vote on the House floor in the Committee of the Whole which had been granted by House rules and approved by the federal courts. Republicans have now withdrawn a legitimate vote of American citizens who pay their full freight in federal taxes and have fought in every war since the republic was established.
After taking D.C.’s limited vote, Republicans turned to taking down the city’s home rule. A House-passed harsh anti-choice bill affecting the nation’s women contained an unprecedented prohibition affecting only the District. Instead of the D.C. abortion rider that has been added to annual appropriations bills, Republicans want a permanent law barring city spending on abortion services for low-income women. Most Americans support the constitutional right to abortion, although many others oppose it. Federal funds may not be used to pay for abortions, but no one questions the long-standing practice of seventeen states, including some anti-abortion states, of spending local funds on abortion services, or on anything else.
The struggle continues as the 2012 appropriations season begins. An Appropriations Committee-approved bill includes only the abortion rider. That is one rider too many, particularly considering that when Democrats were in power, we removed all anti-home-rule riders for the first time. House Republicans will probably succeed in keeping this rider in their bill, and more riders could come on the floor. It will then be up to the Democratic-controlled Senate and the Administration to protect the city’s home rule.
So great is the continuing danger of interference with the District’s right to govern itself that a national coalition of 100 organizations has come forward with a weapon D.C. residents do not have. The national organizations have activated their members, who live in every congressional district, to warn their Members of Congress not to meddle in D.C.’s local affairs.
The District could not have moved from a city with no democracy – no local government and no Member of Congress – without allies. It is no coincidence that the District, a majority Black city, achieved self-government only when civil rights became a major issue in our country. Today, members of the Congressional Black Caucus are the city’s foremost congressional allies, but the entire Democratic Caucus was critical to the removal of all anti-home-rule riders and the D.C. House Voting Rights Act, which would be law today if an amendment to eliminate all of the city’s gun safety laws had not been attached.
The nation’s capital should be the 51st state by now. The city’s taxpaying citizens should at least have a vote in the Congress that demands that D.C. citizens abide by the laws the Congress enacts. D.C. residents and their elected leaders are fighting with all that they have. What they need most now is the support of other Americans, who have the basic rights that the citizens of the nation’s capital are still seeking.