Last Tuesday, November 16th,District of Columbia leaders turned down an offer for increased self-governance due to a condition they believed was unacceptable.
The offer was straight forward—Republicans controlling the U.S. House of Representatives drafted legislation that would at long last, free DC, at least the District’s budget, by ending the required process of review and approval by the federal government. Since this process has been linked to the federal government’s own budget, DC finances have often been held hostage and the DC government has even had to shut down, suspending trash collection and other services, during periodic political tugs of war between Congress and the President. Making DC autonomous of the federal budget cycle, which begins every October 1, would have provided the District increased stability, allowed local officials to fix a financial calendar that coincides with the public school year, and saved money DC is forced to spend preparing for federal shutdowns.
And the catch—in return for “budget autonomy,” DC would be permanently barred from funding elective abortions (performed for non-medical reasons) for low income women. Currently, the District government is already banned from funding elective abortions through the remainder of FY 2011.
According to the DC Department of Health Care Finance, elective abortions are relatively a minor expense out of the agency’s billion dollar plus budget. Per the agency’s figures, just 117 such procedures were funded to the tune of $65,000, before the program was terminated. The District’s funding of elective abortions was initially terminated by a measure passed by Congress in 1996, described as the Dornan Amendment. During the first year of the Obama Administration, in 2009, Congress overturned the 13-year old abortion ban.
This year, after Republicans took control of the House of Representatives, the District’s local funding for abortions became a prized target for conservatives looking for quick ways to score points with their tea-party supporters who swept them into power. This spring, Republicans made the District’s abortion funding a negotiating point in debate over a federal spending package for FY 2011. To avert a government shutdown, the President himself is quoted to have told Republican House Speaker that “I will give you D.C. abortion.”
News of this compromise sparked outrage amongst DC rights activists and politicians, leading to the arrest of the Mayor and other District rights supporters, 72 in all.
With the national sympathy for the District generated by the arrests, Congressman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, responsible for overseeing the District’s affairs, proposed the compromise to avoid a similar showdown and to make the abortion ban permanent, rather than being required to renew the ban annually.
The Civics Lesson
Someone new to the District or DC politics may not realize the significance of “budget autonomy” or might be confused why the federal government is responsible for local public health priorities.
The issue boils down to statehood, or the lack thereof says Anise Jenkins, President of Stand Up! for Democracy in DC. “So long as DC is denied full statehood, we will continue to be faced with games like as the recent deal [for increased financial freedom],” says Jenkins. As one of the activists arrested along with the Mayor earlier this year, and the only one cleared of all charges stemming from their act of nonviolent civil disobedience, Jenkins believes that on principle, the proposal to exchange abortion rights for financial freedom, was no deal at all.
American University Law School constitutional law professor Jamin Raskin concurs, and adds that the District’s unique status makes it a constant magnate for political gamesmanship. Raskin notes that the “District Clause” in the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to “exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases, whatsoever, over” the District, as “the Seat of the Government of theUnited States.” Apparently, the Framers were motivated by their interests to ensure that the federal seat of government would not be unduly influenced by the state in which it might be located.
However, Raskin appreciates the importance of the District’s budget autonomy. “Had the deal made its way into law, it would have been the most significant expansion of DC’s power in the history of Home Rule [the 1970 era law creating the District as a separate city-state],” states Raskin.
Yet even for Anita Bonds, Chairwoman for the District’s Democratic Party organization and a former senior DC official, DC leaders were right to reject the deal, for “GP” general principle.
“Am I happy that we had to give up budget autonomy, no,” said Bonds. “Nonetheless, [rejecting Rep. Issa’s offer] was a political act…you have to fall on the sword for principle.”
And as Bonds points out, “politics can be painful.”